Taking a Dump

Dump. It’s a simple word, isn’t it? Whether noun or verb, it’s wholly descriptive and the meaning is clear. Not sure? Look it up. But at some point in its otherwise inoffensive history, that meaning was extended (twice over) to include not only the ridding of a person, but also the expulsion of human waste. ‘Just gunna take a dump.’ Used so often it’s almost a catchcry, all who hear it understand the speaker’s intent. Glances are exchanged, a few brows furrow and the announcement is mentally filed under Ew! TMI! Is it a peculiarly Australian idiom? I don’t know. But having grown up here, it’s easy to appreciate the symbolism — when it comes to dumping, a person can be (and often is) accorded the same disdain with which one might regard a piece of shit.

We’ve all been there: the noisy playground filled with energy and spite, kids laughing and crying, rushing and huddling, pushing and shoving, bitching and arguing. And amid all that tumult a single voice still manages to be heard, from fenceline to dingy brick building, even carrying across playing fields and through closed doors to the inner sanctum of the toilet block: ‘You’re DUMPED!’

Oh, the humiliation! The noise mutes to a startled silence, before curiosity kick-starts a murmuring, a muttering, a windy whisper: ‘Dumped? Who’s dumped?’ And all heads crane to see. The Dumper, backed by a gang of supporters, is cross-armed, defiant and always triumphant; the Dumpee stands dejected and alone, the focus of pointing fingers and smirky smiles, before bursting into tears and running off to sob in a quiet corner. Yes, we’ve all been there. And we all know there’s no easy way to take a good dumping.

I was always the Dumpee. At least at school. Of course I learned my lessons well, and applied them in later years with all the gleeful aplomb of a master Dumper. But at school I suffered. Even now I can recall the ignominy of being rejected in fifth grade by Cyril. [No, that wasn’t his real name. Had it been his real name, no such ignominy would’ve transpired. It’s rare — though not impossible — for a Cyril to be hailed as the school stud.]

It goes without saying Cyril had a girlfriend: Ethel, the school babe. The two of them would saunter and strut together, lip-locked and holding hands. And it was fitting that they paraded their youthful (if somewhat overt) sexuality before us lesser beings while we sighed our approval in their wake; they did make a fabulous couple. As only fifth-graders can.

But one day there was a falling-out; a faint rumbling in the Heavens, and Ethel was cast down. Not dumped, per se, but put aside, ‘on hold’ if you like. Punished. Except, being merely mortal and just a little desperate to be adored, I wasn’t attuned to the playful antics of such demi-gods. So when Cyril, with a casual crook of his finger, a head flick and a lazy smile, summoned me over and told me I was ‘next’, I took him at his word. For four glorious days Cyril held my hand, locked his lips to mine instead of Ethel’s and I heard the approving sighs as we floated among the less fortunate. But Ethel didn’t sigh. Nor did her cohort. And on the fifth morning, when I bounded into the school playground with unleashed-puppy eagerness and saw her once again restored to her rightful place, I stared, miserable, while Ethel and Cyril and their hangers-on all sniggered.

‘Oh yeah,’ Cyril told me, with as much concern as he might’ve paid to an untied shoelace. ‘You’re dumped.’

There it was. I’d been rejected. Ejected. Dumped and wiped and flushed. Like shit.

Nope. Even then, aged ten, the symbolism wasn’t lost on me.

Jane Abbott   

What Social Science Can Teach You About Dating

arcade-card-unknown-publisher-woman-sitting-on-beach-set-with-arms-gracefully-over-knees-and-holding-hat-1920s

Never underestimate the importance of your internet dating profile picture.

For many years, friends have asked me for dating advice. At first, I wasn’t sure why. But eventually I realised: I had spent too many years studying the social sciences, and they wanted my evidence base.

Social science can teach us many important things — from tackling poverty to helping people to make better life choices. It also offers a lot of insights about dating. Here are four of the most useful.

1.  Grow your sample size

In the 90s, a group of men calling themselves ‘pick-up artists’ formed an international ‘seduction community’. The goal: to maximise their dating success with women. They coached each other in a series of seduction techniques — many of which were slammed as misogynistic, but continue to be promoted and taught today. Some techniques were straightforward, for instance improving the men’s self-esteem, social skills and appearance. Others were more complex, such mastering the backhanded compliment in order to gain the attention of a popular woman. Many pick-up artists reported significant numbers of conquests. Yet I suspect a large part of their ‘success’ was due to increased sample size. The pick-up artists encouraged each other to bust a move on lots of women, and not to take it personally when they said no. This increased their chances of eventually getting a yes.

2.  Recognise that humans are superficial

Dating sites can tell us a lot about our dating preferences — and it’s not always flattering. The OkTrends blog crunches the numbers from the OkCupid dating website, with some interesting results. When assessing another person’s ‘looks’ and ‘personality’ based on their profile, most people focus almost entirely on the photo, rather than the text. OkTrends therefore provides instructions on how not to be ugly by accident. In short, use a good camera, don’t use flash, emphasize the foreground, and take photos in the afternoon or at night.

3.  Know when to stop looking

Economist and politician Andrew Leigh found that people who marry in their teens are a lot more likely to split up than those who wait until at least their twenties. He attributes this to the optimal-stopping problem. Basically, nobody is a perfect match for you, but some people are definitely better than others. You need to get to know people before you know if they are right for you. Time is scarce, so it’s better to make a decision with limited information than no decision at all. In short, you need to choose a time to stop looking in order to get the best outcome, factoring in the need to allow time to gather enough information. (Leigh does acknowledge that this is not the most romantic of theories, and suggests not busting it out on the first date.)

4.  Get some perspective

Research suggests that people who are married or in stable relationships have better wellbeing than others. But relationship status isn’t the only aspect of wellbeing. So if a relationship isn’t happening for you right now, it might be smart to switch your focus to other aspects of wellbeing: exercise, eat well, spend time with friends and family, and make a positive contribution through work or volunteering.

Penny Jones   

Sir P Speaks: A few of my least favourite things

regular_3110350_0001Hello bloggards,

Since my debut last month, the Cringe’s cyber mailroom has been overwhelmed by pleas for guidance. The following is but one:

Sir Partridge

I can’t decide who to hate. I want cyclists banned from dual walking/cycling tracks because of the sarcastic comments they make as they zip past me. I also want drivers of grey or silver cars sent to re-education camps on the excellent basis that their vehicles are invisible in bad weather. Nor do I like iPhones for reasons I’m a bit unclear about; it’s more an instinctual thing, I think. These are just three examples of the kind of people who would be first against the wall in an ideal world. Oh, and people who get into social media too much, which is everyone, basically.

Also, I would like to see more human-animal hybrids about.

Oh, and why haven’t I been awarded the Order of Australia when I am so inherently decent?

You might like to know that I have invented Birthday Bellows, which children can use to blow out their candles without contaminating the birthday cake with their virulent spittle. Why is the Patent Office so indifferent? I have also invented the human nosebag for people who are too busy to use their hands while eating lunch and so on.

Yours in rage and adoration

Finbarr S

Frankly, Finbarr, I am worried about your brain. And yet the epistolary dead mouse you have laid on my doorstep isn’t entirely devoid of life. In fact, your veritable slew of pet hates perfectly mirrors my own.

What I call hate management is a delicate art. There are so many hateful things in the world that one has to choose carefully where to direct one’s ire. One mustn’t overdo these things …

Humans’ dislike for cyclists, iPhoners and social media nutters is well-worn territory but I think you’re onto something when you ramble on about grey cars on overcast days. They do seem to wilfully lurk in your blindspot, headlights off, blending in perfectly with leaden sky and asphalt like some foul wraith or secret government stealth vehicle. I’m sure I’ve seen a study somewhere showing that they’re slightly more likely to be involved in an accident. I for one drive a canary yellow MG for just that reason and I can safely say that of all the many, many accidents I’ve been involved in, not one of them was because I couldn’t be seen.

I can well sympathise with your views on the Order of Australia. Were it not for Australia’s harsh libel laws I would only too willingly list an easy 100 undeserving recipients. I’m sure you are decent, Figmarr, but that is not enough. It is about being seen to ‘contribute’ to society, however you choose to interpret that word. Most people think I have a knighthood but I don’t. I am but a baronet, a title passed down the Gormley line for generations after it was bestowed on my ancestor by James IV as a sop for sleeping with his wife.

Animal-human hybrids are rare, Figment, because we don’t live on the Island of Dr Moreau. If we did, then it might be fun to have antlers, like those of a moose. You might want to lacquer them, or better still employ someone to lacquer them for you. You might also festoon them with ribbons and so forth.

As for your inventions, they are ludicrous. Except the Birthday Bellows (pure genius). And the human nosebag – in fact, I’m wearing a prototype right now! It is remarkably convenient and dignified. Why the Patent Office hates you and singles you out for special treatment is beyond me. Perhaps they ought to get their hate management procedures in order too.

Sir P

 

Sir Partridge Gormley’s emissions are rendered as coherent as they can be by the ever-patient @ConanElphicke. If you are confused and bewildered, and we suspect you are, by all means send your queries to thecringeblog@gmail.com.

 

On Travelling Alone

Charlotte Walking by Tom Kemp copy

The media and the travel industry sell us the idea that the best sort of travel is with someone else, preferably your partner. The posters in travel agencies show couples lying together on tropical beaches, or holding hands on the Great Wall of China. To an extent, they’re right — travelling with a partner is a terrific way to strengthen your relationship. It also means there’s someone to hold your bulging backpack when you go to the loo in a crowded train station in a developing country — a benefit not to be underestimated.

But there is something magical about travelling alone. Something that the travel agencies and media don’t tell us, and the security warnings try to scare us away from. The people who get closest to explaining the magic of solo travel are writers, such as Emma Ayres, whose book Cadence describes her bicycle adventure from England to Hong Kong with a violin, and Robyn Davidson, whose book Tracks tells of her travels across the Australian desert with a dog and four camels.

I came to solo travel in a slightly different way. In year twelve, I read Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, and loved it so much I decided to travel to India. I got my opportunity a year later, when a university scholarship gave me the funds. My parents were worried that their eighteen year-old daughter was about to go schlepping around the subcontinent for three months, but now that I had the money, I couldn’t be stopped.

My first weeks in South Asia made me wonder if my parents were right. In Sri Lanka, after signing up spontaneously for some sort of alternative medicine treatment, I found myself shut up in a wooden box like a coffin with small holes at the bottom. Someone I couldn’t see started putting hot, aromatic substances under the coffin, presumably so they could be absorbed through my skin. With no language skills to figure out what was happening, I lay there and wondered if I was going to end up steamed to death in the name of a medical procedure I didn’t understand.

On my first day in Delhi, my backpack caught on the back of a rickshaw in the narrow streets of the old city. Still attached to my backpack, I found myself dragged fifteen metres down the street, through laughing and pointing crowds, before the driver realised he’d attracted an unpaying hitchhiker.

At that point, I found a payphone and rang my mum, close to tears. I was thinking about going back to Australia. But instead, I got on the first train out of Delhi. ‘Amritsar’, said the sign.

And it was on that train to Amritsar that I began to understand the beauty of solo travel. I met a group of university students who were travelling back to their home in Amritsar, and they decided I should visit them. So I spent a few days staying with a young Muslim woman at the university’s Girls Hostel. (No males allowed — not even baby brothers.) She told me about her secret relationship with a boy. They’d been in love for years, but they hadn’t even kissed, or told their families about their relationship. As I told her about my friends and our own views of relationships, I began to question aspects of my own culture that I’d taken for granted.

She was the first of many wonderful people who invited me into their lives in India. Each of them shared different perspectives on the world. A young lesbian told me how she couldn’t bring herself to explain to her parents why she kept rejecting the male suitors they brought her. An older trade unionist forced me to question the ethics of being a young, white middle class person traipsing around looking at the developing world.

I often think about many of these people, and their ideas and experiences have informed many of the decisions I’ve made about my own life and career. If I’d been travelling with another person, I doubt I’d have met them — one person is more likely to meet other people than a self-contained duo.

Later, after I’d finished university, I had my first major solo trip in Australia. Lacking the money to go overseas, and with a month to go before I started at my new graduate job, I decided to take my Mazda 121 bubble car from Canberra to Alice Springs and back. It was January and scorching, which was wonderful, because the roads were clear and I had campsites to myself, from the Grampians, to the Flinders Ranges, all the way to the West MacDonnell Ranges. I spent hours each day walking and sweating and thinking, and in my evenings I read. I had never had so long to spend inside my head, nor had I ever had the opportunity to see the Australian desert, with its red earth stretching for miles until it met the bright blue sky.

I didn’t meet so many people on this trip, but one man sticks in my mind. I was camping — alone, as usual — in the West MacDonnell Ranges, when I got caught in sudden, torrential rain. It beat down, soaking me in seconds and flooding my tent. I was taking down my tent, and trying to figure out if it would be safe to sleep in my car, when an Indigenous ranger showed up. He invited me to stay at his place. As a respectful man, aware of the strangeness of inviting an unknown woman to sleep in his house, he didn’t talk much. I went to bed early, and slept gratefully in his child’s Sesame Street-themed sheets. In the morning, he was gone, having left just a note encouraging me to eat as many eggs on toast as I needed.

I know that solo travel is more dangerous than group travel. You’re more likely to meet nasty people and get caught in threatening situations. But you also have the sorts of experiences that just aren’t possible if you’re travelling with your partner, let alone a busload of tourists. You notice things more, and you meet more people.

Now, more often than not, I travel with my partner. But I do still go off on trips of my own — admittedly with a few more safety precautions than in my younger days. I’m aware of the dangers, but I think they’re worth the risk. Solo travel has made me who I am, and it continues to introduce me to new places, people and ideas, and make me question aspects of my life and culture I’d otherwise take as given.

Penny Jones

This essay was first published on Penny Jones’ blog: www.pennyalicejones.com 

On “Strange Fruit”

punksingerThe Punk Singer is a 2013 documentary about iconoclastic singer/songwriter Kathleen Hanna. The movie charts her brilliant, sad, radical, and sometimes violent trajectory across the musical landscape of the American Northwest in the ‘90s. Her limelight began in 1990 fronting the hard core 4-piece Bikini Kill. When criticised for not being able to play their instruments, the band’s response was simply ‘And?’ They  were part of the make-it-up-as-you-go-along ethic of politics, fashion, music and art that owed as much to the Punk vanguards of the ‘70s as it did to the Beats and Dada. Kathleen Hanna was Punk as Kathy Acker was Punk. Barbara Kruger. Her music was the Revolution Rock revived from its reggae roots by the Clash. With Kathleen Hanna, the protest song was taken to a new velocity, with new levels of impact and immediacy, but her musical and political genealogy ran deep, beyond Punk and the protest movement of the ‘60s, to Blues, and Jazz, and perhaps one of the most beautifully haunting protest songs of all time. Billy Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”.

strangefruitsmall“Strange Fruit” was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high school teacher and member of the Communist Party in New York. It was first sung by Holiday in 1939, 15 years before Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a bus to a white person inadvertently kicking off what history remembers as the Civil Rights Movement. The song is a simple, poetic, and deeply evocative protest against lynching in the South, where, amidst the fresh scent of magnolias in the breeze, black bodies swing from the poplar trees.

“Strange Fruit” was considered so hot at the time, so incendiary, Billie Holiday’s record company Columbia actually released her from contract, for one day, to record it. (It became her largest selling album.) When she first performed it at Café Society in New York’s Greenwich Village, it closed her set. The manager had all the waiters stop serving, threw the entire room into darkness with a single spot illuminating Holiday’s face, and she sang the entire number with eyes closed, as if in prayer, lamenting:

The bulging eyes and the twisting mouth

Here is the fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop…

(Meeropol, 1937)

Billie HolidayBilly Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is a very different scream to Kathleen Hanna’s bullet vocals trashing the hypocritical mores of sexuality and violence and celebrating the wild autonomy of feminism, but the punk girl’s anger grows from the same soil as the blood soaked poplar trees of the American South. In “Strange Fruit”, as Billy Holiday reaches the final word of the final phrase, her voice lifts. Like the opening of a window. Because within every hard core protest song is also a song about freedom and possibility.  As Kathleen Hanna points out in The Punk Singer, there’s no point singing about revolution unless you can dance to it.

Sean Macgillicuddy

Meeropol, Abel. (1937). As “Bitter Fruit”. The New York Teacher (ed. unknown). New York.

‘Gone Girl’: A Discussion of Themes & Implications (spoilers)

When the dust settles what does Gone Girl tell us about men, women and relationships*?

gone-girl-01_Amy DunneI’m still on the fence about Gone Girl. While I admire the clever plot and the exceptional interrogation of human nature, I find myself a little angry at the negative depiction of marriage and gender that such a contradictory book delivers. Whatever your opinion, one thing is certain: the book is incredibly influential. Creative influence is a responsibility, and not one to be taken lightly. As with any book carrying significant cultural weight, it’s important to consider the themes raised in the book and the impact they may have on gender issues and relationships.

The story is clever and the themes are unsettling. Both elements make the narrative particularly engrossing, but when all is said and done we are left with some confusing messages. It’s a mistake to write off the portrayal of Nick and Amy’s marriage as complete fiction, as the story raises many significant issues about how men and women see themselves and each other. I think it’s equally dangerous to take it at face value, as some have done, and use it as proof that all men are dicks and all women are evil and the world is screwed.

This is where I get concerned. Considering the impact such a widely popular story will have on people, I wonder exactly what Flynn had in mind besides making a pretty dollar off the sensationalism.

Nothing is sacred in the novel. Love, marriage, family, neighbours, men, women, city life, country life, the media, the economy, the police, the judicial system, the masses, parenthood, childhood, fame, destitution, old writers, new writers, cultural legacy, pop culture, rich people, poor people, the educated, the ignorant, the young, the old, sanity, mental illness, you name it. The only safe element is the cat, Bleecker. It’s hard not to leave the story frustrated by the utterly desolate portrayal of everything that makes up our modern way of life. Sometimes you can’t help but feel that Flynn has created a story that shits on everything just for the sake of it.

Many people hated the book and the movie for this reason, mainly because they expected some kind of justified resolution. They wanted someone to win: a righteous ending so justice could be served, or utter tragedy so the audience could write it off as black fiction. The exact awfulness of the ending is just unresolved enough to leave us perpetually uncomfortable because we can’t just tuck it all away in a convenient genre. We actually have to think about it, and we don’t like that because it cuts too close to home. I think a lot of the people who have denigrated the novel entirely are people who ultimately don’t want to admit that there was a lot of truth to the characters.

Perhaps that’s what Flynn is ultimately trying to say: that we deceive each other and ourselves because reality is too damn hard. Yet the truth about marriage is much more nuanced and positive than Flynn would have us believe. The fact is that men and women do have different expectations of each other when entering a relationship, and rarely are those misunderstandings fully solved. But the final ‘comment’ of Flynn’s story is that you can never be yourself in a partnership; that the only way things work is for both to continue in self-deception. While I don’t agree that this is the only possible outcome for all relationships, I do think it bears some consideration.

Here’s a quick look at some ideas raised in the book.

Marriage
GONE GIRL, from left: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, 2014. ph: Merrick Morton/TM & copyright ©20thThe novel explores many contemporary issues about marriage that are disturbingly relevant. Foremost are the tensions created by external factors, such as job redundancies, financial constraints, cultural tensions between the city girl and the country boy, the stress of relocating, the influence of in-laws, and dealing with family sickness and death. These are all highly powerful influences on the health of a marriage, and Flynn depicts both positive and negative reactions to these issues in Amy and Nick’s relationship.

Just as relevant are the internal factors, such as whether or not to have kids, where to invest money, deciding to relocate, how to handle dwindling romantic energy, how to balance gender roles, how much to expect of each other, how to be attentive, how to communicate effectively with each other, how to consider one another’s needs and desires.

In reality, most marriages have successfully overcome or compromised on these issues, but many have also sputtered and failed as a result. Flynn’s depiction of the slowly building tensions and the lack of effective communication between Nick and Amy is frighteningly realistic, more detailed and accurate than the normal reader expects from a thriller. The way the novel’s characters respond to relational fallout has a lot to do with their upbringing, their personalities, and their mental health. As Amy is clearly a sociopath (or technically, suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder), her response is not ‘usual’ so we can (hopefully) assume that not all relationships will end in someone trying to frame the other for murder. However, as we all have a little bit of crazy, and mental health is a very present factor in a lot of marriages, it can also be expected that most of us won’t necessarily respond well to all of these issues.

So where does reality sit? The bottom line is that relationships are tough, but we can’t exist without them. They require some effort, but inevitably they make your life worth the living. You can’t expect any relationship to be perfect, but you can expect it to be great. The key, really, is to know when and how to compromise and when and how to stand your ground. Be ready for the crap when it comes (because it inevitably will) and be determined to overcome it together and move on.

This is where Nick and Amy really fail each other, long before the affair and the set-up. It’s too easy to say they were screwed from the start because she was a psycho and he was a spineless mummy’s boy. The cracks came through in the false expectations they had of each other and of marriage. Perceived failure, resentment and guilt, incubated by a lack of authentic communication, ultimately drove them apart, resulting in the vengeful actions (on both their parts) that lead to the events of the novel.

Men
gone-girl-vigilThe portrayal of Nick Dunne is complex and exceptional, and it’s unclear at the end of the novel if he should be regarded as the hero of the book, or an equal and willing partner to the horrors he’s endured. When it comes to male gender identity the important thing is not deciding if his behaviour is right or wrong, but in filtering through the sensationalism to find the truth in his character.

Nick starts out genuinely wanting to make things work with Amy but gradually stops trying, ultimately starting an affair and wanting a divorce. The hinted reasons for this change include his hurt pride at being made redundant, his dependence on Amy’s finance, his constant guilt about moving them to Missouri, further guilt about not living up to her (treasure-hunt) expectations, his inability to effectively communicate his feelings, and a deep-seated resentment toward strong women (a feeling which he suppresses and denies, but still surfaces).

Is this a true representation of all men’s response to marriage? No, but it would definitely ring true for some. The grey area here is that all these reasons can both be valid and invalid in their own way, and so it becomes far too easy (and incorrect) to place blame wholly on him or wholly on her.

For example many would argue that the difficulty of relying on your wife for financial support is a result of deep-seated ‘provider’ psychology in males and is therefore justified. While this may be true, is it not fair then to say that sometimes we need to get over our pride in order to make a relationship work?

Another example is his perceived guilt for not living up to Amy’s expectations. Again, this is valid on some level, but is it ok to live in resentment without trying to communicate how you feel? Is it not valid for Amy to have some expectation for how she wants the marriage to work out? Was his guilt a result of knowing he had deliberately failed to consider her in some decisions?

At one point he complains that he is sick of being surrounded by nagging women, but earlier in the book Amy points out that there are behaviors he reverts to that force her into a nagging role. Both valid. Yet he often genuinely wants to help people and do the right thing, and frequently acts out of love for the women in his life: moving home to help his sick mother and maintaining a consistently positive relationship with Margo.

All of this simply serves to illustrate that Nick is human. He fails and is likewise failed by others, ultimately playing an equal hand in the disintegration of his marriage. Unfortunately, in the wake of the revelation about Amy’s deception, the novel leaves us with a conflicted portrayal of male identity in marriage and in society.

Nick’s insecurities about turning out just like his own father haunt his every step, and it’s ultimately this fear that makes him decide to stay with Amy: he wants, above all, to be the great father he never had.

Making his determination all the more poignant are the behaviors and attitudes that surface throughout the book that show him to be exactly like his father. While we are left with a somewhat positive impression of Nick’s commitment to his unborn son, Flynn has created just enough grey area so there’s no guarantee that he won’t gradually succumb to the emotional pressure of living with a murderous sociopath and become the same father he resented.

Nick’s upbringing has far-reaching effects on his emotional life and reflects a very relevant issue in modern families. At the core we have the negative male role model in Nick’s life: the emotionally abusive, woman-hating father. The de-masculinising of men is a real problem in society and one that must be addressed, but does it excuse weak and abusive behavior in men? Of course not.

How, then, are men expected to behave? And are the expectations society generates actually valid? And what prevents some men from being present in the family as strong parental role models? It’s a cop-out to say that bitchy women or spineless men are to blame for this modern gender identity crisis, but unfortunately that’s one way Flynn’s narrative could be interpreted. The greyness and complexity of this issue is subverted by the fact that Amy is a sociopath. It then becomes too easy to blame all his selfish actions on her craziness, or to blame her breakdown on his selfishness.

Nick is portrayed as sympathetic but also flawed. He does try to be a good guy but he also deliberately distances himself from Amy instead of trying to work out their issues, ultimately choosing to have an affair. The point is not that Nick was or wasn’t valid in his feelings and actions, as his insecurities are borne of real struggles that many men face. The point, again, is that he and Amy failed to communicate effectively about them, resulting in destructive responses from both.

Women
gone.girl_diaryLeaving aside the fact that Amy is a sociopath, her reflections on what it means to be a woman in a relationship are often accurate and insightful.

Her rant about the ‘Cool Girl’ syndrome is particularly true, and bears some serious consideration. Cool Girl is described, basically, as being effortlessly and consistently gorgeous, sexy and brilliant, having flawless confidence and easy-goingness, and unfailingly loving all the things men love. As Amy rightly says, Cool Girl doesn’t exist. She is a myth perpetuated by women pretending to be what men want, and men lazily expecting their women to be exactly what they want. Flynn’s discussion of Cool Girl lasts over four pages in the novel and is itself an essay in contemporary gender dilemmas. And that’s the problem. It’s not something that sociopathic women like Amy invented in order to hate on men; it’s a real and present issue in modern society.

So, why, Flynn? Why write such an insightful and concerning gender essay and then make the character an unhinged murderess?

Amy’s desire to constantly be the perfect partner is an accurate depiction of most women, the extent of which depends on individual personalities but nevertheless rings true. How many women spend their lives adapting to perceived expectations, only to end up exhausted and frustrated? Too many. Again, this is a two-sided issue of women perceiving expectations from their partners that are not necessarily true, but also of partners not observing that their wives are making such an effort.

As discussed above, a lot of Amy’s problems with Nick come down to her miscommunicated expectations and the resultant feelings of guilt in Nick. The point about the treasure-hunts is disconcerting, because of course everyone wants to know that their partner ‘understands’ them and cares enough to notice what they’re like. At the same time, everyone is human and you can never know everything there is to know about another person. To avoid this becoming a huge issue in their marriage, Nick and Amy clearly needed to make some effort: Amy to mitigate her expectations, and Nick to make a concerted effort to be more attentive.

Though it’s impossible to know exactly how much Diary Amy is Real Amy, it’s clear that most entries are an accurate reflection of her feelings and actions. If I put myself in her place, I can’t help but sympathise with her feelings of desolation and her desire to make things right (though I wouldn’t go about it quite like she did).

If I faced two job losses in the household and my parents’ financial ruin, and then my husband up and moved me away from my hometown without consulting me, I would be more than momentarily upset. I would start to question the health of our marriage. Having similarly relocated to my husband’s hometown (though voluntarily; my husband would never force that on me), I completely sympathise with Amy’s feelings of isolation and the difficulty of trying to fit in with a family and a community culture that is vastly different to your own. If my husband then continued to distance himself from me, used our remaining finance to set up a ‘hobby’ job, and cared so little for me that he didn’t even know what I did with my time, I would start to freak out emotionally too. If I then caught him cheating on me with a ‘perfect’ young girl after I had tried so hard to be the perfect wife? Well, that would be a tipper. Would it induce me to commit murder by framing him? No. But then again, I’m not a sociopath.

And this is where I get annoyed at Flynn. She sets up sympathetic and complex male and female identities, creates a compelling case for marital disharmony, and then screws over any truth to their relationship by making Amy a murdering sociopath. This then gives every dissatisfied and ignorant man an excuse to blame any valid female behavior that they don’t like on the misguided premise that all women are psychos. Of course, the book wouldn’t have worked if Amy had been sane, but the true concerns raised by Flynn combined with Amy’s extreme behaviours create a disturbing message about female identity, one that can confuse both men and women.

In a way we should thank Flynn for creating such an impeccable female villain. It’s about time, really. But instead of the one-dimensional, totally crazy villains we expect from this kind of story (Norman Bates) Amy is a real woman. Which sadly makes it seem that any remotely intelligent woman with expectations and standards in life must be a sociopath.

I hope that modern audiences are open-minded enough to both accept the truth of this novel and also to see beyond the final curtain to a balanced view on the nature of relationships. Unfortunately a quick scan of recent forums demonstrates this is not the case; it’s too tempting for modern readers to let the novel validate their malcontents instead of challenge them. Try to put your knee-jerk irritations aside and examine these issues in an honest way. Interrogate the truth to Flynn’s characters while also seeing them for what they are: a simple exercise, albeit a highly successful one, in mass-sensationalist controversy.

Elise Janes

What are your thoughts?

 

*Note: The discussion in this essay stems from heterosexual marriage and gender identities due to the subject matter of the novel.

Unnatural Selection

Melbourne Cup‘ The race that stops a nation.’ It’s a big claim by Racing Victoria, but is it really true?

Since its inception, and not even halted by two World Wars, the Melbourne Cup has been embraced with increasing gusto by every generation of Australians. But at some point during the 70s and 80s — when work was just a place you visited five days a week to fill in time and lunches were spent downing beers at the local pub — our attitude to (and love of) the race began a slow transformation into something much uglier.

Those heady decades leading up to Black Monday were a time of enormous wealth generated largely by a booming resource industry; a time when entrepreneurs like Alan Bond were showing the rest of us how they lived large in the ‘wild West’. A precedent was set and celebrating the Melbourne Cup ever more excessively became the new Australian way, the thing to do, iconic and culturally fitting.

Then, on the first Tuesday of each November, offices around the country would close for business from mid-morning. Old box televisions were wheeled into board rooms, canapés and flutes of French champagne were passed around with largesse by ruddy-faced directors, and there were always at least five sweeps on the go in any one place, giving every tipsy worker a fair chance of scooping enough cash with which to celebrate later. For those few hours, corporate tiers were torn down, bosses mingling (usually in more ways than one) with employees, the reception desk abandoned and the switchboard turned off — all for the sake of a three-minute horse race. What other nation on earth would dare to slow its production wheels for such a silly thing?

But if the race managed to grind too-rich corporations to a halt, there were plenty of industries that didn’t — couldn’t — stop to partake: teachers, doctors and nurses, emergency services, transport workers and the like. The adage that the Melbourne Cup ‘stops a nation’ didn’t then — and doesn’t now — bear scrutiny. How could it? But it’s a great marketing gimmick, and one that Racing Victoria clings to.

Even the most extreme measure taken by Victoria — declaring Melbourne Cup day a public holiday — hasn’t proved the claim true. In a number of regional centres it’s business as usual; they celebrate their own spring racing carnivals (Kyneton Cup) and they’ll take their holiday when it suits, thank you very much. Most Melburnians decide, since Tuesday’s already a holiday, they might as well bunk off on the Monday off too, so it becomes the longest of long weekends. A chance to get away. Race? What race? And for those Victorians who do give a damn; who plan a modest get-together of their own — the men tapping in online bets and beering it up around the BBQ while, in the kitchen (yes, even in 2014), women peel cling film from bowls of salads and supervise hordes of children — it no longer holds the same appeal. Because, just as it’s been for the last 40 years, celebrating the Melbourne Cup isn’t about watching a race. It’s about over-indulging and skiving off work. And when you’re already off work, what’s left to celebrate?

Flemington_main_stand,_2013_Melbourne_Cup (1)

Flemington main stand, 2013 Melbourne Cup by Jupiter Firelyte via Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, unless we ignore the race altogether, what else can Victorians do except attend the bloody thing?

So we do. In droves. Every year the numbers increase (over 104,000 in 2013) and one could be forgiven for thinking the enforced holiday nothing more than a clever money-spinning ploy. But there’s no denying that for many who frock up and flock to Flemington for the big day (or the whole week: 331,196 last year), the Melbourne Cup remains a high point on the social calendar. And it celebrates everything that’s wonderful, as well as all that is truly awful, about our society.

It’s about selection – the fastest horses, the best-dressed race-goers, the most expensive foods and wines, the most coveted of tents — the rich, the powerful, celebrities and dignitaries alike, all choppered and chauffeured to the track and separated by affordability and popularity from the untidy masses who collect on the concourse. It’s as much about selection as it is about rejection, and it isn’t hailed ‘the sport of kings’ for nothing. Charles Darwin, if he were alive today, might be more than a little bemused by the spectacle.

Because there’s nothing natural about the Melbourne Cup. It has become a day of wanton excess. A day where twenty-four of the world’s most thoroughly-bred and genetically engineered horses compete for brief accolade, and their owners and trainers compete for huge prize-money.

2013_Myer_Fashions_on_the_Field_(10705584675)

2013 Myer Fashions on the Field by Chris Phutully via Wikimedia Commons

It’s about breeding, and not just on the track. It’s about who’s-who and what’s-what and where to be as well as how best to be seen. It’s about gambling, about squandering that last fiver or throwing down another five hundred — because let’s face it, so many there can afford to — on a whispered tip. It’s a day that heralds every extravagance and every hope and every desperate dream. It’s a race that’s less about the majesty of the horse — its power, its grace, its extraordinary stamina — or the skill of the jockey, and more about a multi billion-dollar industry.

While it can be argued that the Melbourne Cup generates huge profits for all involved in organising and running the event (no, they don’t ‘stop’ either) and helps fill government coffers, it’s not all pretty.

horse_crash3

2007 Melbourne Cup race day – English import Bay Story put down after crash with Bling Bling in Race 3. Via Brisbane Times

It’s been impossible (for me, at least) to find any records stating the exact number of horses that have had to be euthanased as a result of injuries sustained on Melbourne Cup race day. Racing Victoria guards such statistics zealously. And this year, much has been made of the legal wrangle between the racing industry and The Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses, when the latter erected a billboard depicting a dead racehorse over one of Melbourne’s busiest tollways. (It’s since been removed). Add to this any number of horror stories about what happens to these magnificent animals once their use — their money-raking days — are over.

melbourne-cup-2009 -3But there are other horror stories too, the derisive kind, those that mock ridiculous fashion and excessive drinking and spending, and next-day’s tabloids are filled with pictures of the plastered and the poorly attired and all the mess they’ve left behind. And for us Melburnians who have ignored it — who’ve escaped the city and are returning from our long long-weekend — there’s the after-race spectacle to endure as dishevelled, panda-eyed girls totter and weave their way home, while already drunk race-goers decide it’d be a ‘great idea, mate!’ to continue their carousing, crowding pubs and clubs before vomiting and defecating on street corners. Yep, it’s a glorious day for all.

So wherever you are tomorrow, if you’re watching, make sure you savour every second of those three minutes. After all, ‘the race that stops a nation’ is the real reason you’re there. Isn’t it?

Jane Abbott   

Music Festivals: Life After 22

Mark C Austin crowd surfing

Mark C Austin, shared under a Creative Commons license.

Some of my finest memories from my university days involve music festivals. I recall with great fondness queuing for hours to see Kraftwerk and Underworld at the Big Day Out in 2003. There is even a special place in my heart for the time I got dropped crowd surfing to Regurgitator, and ended up in the Emergency Ward with a suspected back injury.

Music festivals are one of the best ways to catch a wide range of musicians in a short timeframe, and discover artists you didn’t already know about. But by the time you’re in your late 20s, having beer spilled on you by girls in tiger onesies and dodging teenagers sucking each other’s faces next to the Portaloos can get a bit old. The Big Day Out’s owners have figured this out — their middle-aged fans are moving on, and younger audiences want something new, so they’ve cancelled the festival for 2015.

For those of you who still like the idea of music festivals, but don’t want to rub up against hundreds of sweaty, drunk teenagers crammed in front of a stage, the key to happiness is to choose your festivals wisely. Here are some tried and tested festivals that hold up when you’re over 22 and (more or less) sober.

  1. Folk, Rhythm & Life (5 to 7 December 2014, rural Victoria)

This is your hippie festival extraordinare, where you camp in the bush, wash in the creek and mingle with cheerful, dusty people from all over south-eastern Ausralia. The ethos is egalitarian and environmentally responsible — and the music is great. Folk, Rhythm & Life gets some moderately big names (we had Mia Dyson in 2012), but one of the best things about this festival is discovering local Australian musicians you never knew about before, and dancing barefoot until morning. A tip about this festival — it’s very popular with those who know it exists, and numbers are limited, so you need to book quickly to avoid missing out.

  1. WOMADelaide (6 to 9 March 2015, Adelaide)

A world music festival set in Adelaide’s Botanic Park, a short walk from the centre of town, WOMAD attracts a broad cross-section of music lovers. From the sweaty twenty-somethings dancing right in front of the stage to the stoned baby boomers relaxing under the trees, everyone is welcome, and everyone gets along. WOMAD also earns double points for disability accessibility, with viewing platforms for wheelchair users so they can see the stage over everyone else’s heads. And did I mention that the music is amazing? The 2015 lineup includes blues musician Bombino, hip-hop artist Neneh Cherry, Senegalese music legend Youssou N’Dour — and many others.

  1. National Folk Festival (2 to 6 April 2015, Canberra)

I go to this festival nearly every year, because I love the friendly atmosphere and the diversity of the music. You’ll find musicians from all over the world, from Sydney-based string quartets to banjo gurus from the USA. A crowd favourite at the 2014 Folk Festival was Indigenous singer-songwriter Archie Roach. At last year’s festival I also discovered one of my favourite musicians of 2014 — Candy Royalle, who commandeered the poetry slam, then packed out a full house to perform her spoken word poetry mixed with hip-hop inspired politics. Friends also rave about the Session Bar, where all the musicians gather after hours to jam until morning, but I have to confess I’m such a nana that I’ve never managed to stay up that late.

These three festivals are my favourites, but there are more. Elise Janes, my fellow Cringe blogger and former Big Day Out attendee, insisted that I must also include a mention of the Woodford Folk Festival. At Woodford, held on the Sunshine Coast hinterland, folk and roots musicians and other artists perform for highly diverse audiences, and Indigenous cultures are celebrated. This year’s festival will be held from 27 December to 1 January 2015. Elise also reminded me that Bluesfest is another favourite for grownups, causing an annual pilgrimage of national and international blues and roots musicians and their fans to Byron Bay. The next Bluesfest will be held from 2 to 6 April 2015.

So if your patience for wading through vomit has waned with age, don’t despair. This summer has plenty of music festivals for you.

Penny Jones   

Happy Halloween, Australia

Halloween-picQ: I moved house a few months ago, and I’ve been enjoying my new neighbourhood. That is, until last week when I found a note in my letterbox asking me to put a couple of orange stickers (supplied with the note) on my gate so I can join in Halloween celebrations. I don’t even have kids! And isn’t Halloween an American thing? I don’t want to upset the locals and be the only one not participating. What should I do?

Spooked, VIC     

____________________________________________________________________    

A: Is there anything more un-Australian than our adoption of a not-even-American festival that’s been plucked from the depths of pre-medieval history to become a sugar-hyped free-for-all? Probably not. Yet, since none of us have any real clue what it is to be Australian (and without any re-worked traditions of our own), what else can we do but tag along? (It could be argued that has become our tradition.) But don’t worry because it’s hardly the same thing at all.

Cotton wool strung between ragged gum trees, badly carved fly-buzzed pumpkins perched on picket fence posts, unlit lanterns thrashing in a hot wind, sweaty little monsters swathed in metres of bed sheets — no, it doesn’t resemble anything close to Halloween. Here (thanks to a little thing called geography, and a not-so-little thing known as daylight savings) it’s celebrated under a scorching sun. No spookiness, no ghosts or goblins, no haunting shadows cast by flickering orange-tinged candlelight, no screams of delight or even fear. It’s nothing more than tiny gangs of over-excited and already over-fed children shepherded by over-indulgent parents, who trudge from orange-stickered house to orange-stickered house hoping to snag a few freebies. And where’s the harm in that?

Many years ago, my mother — a schoolteacher who, by the end of every day was utterly fed up with children of all ages and sizes (including her own) — opened the door to a trio of brave trick-or-treaters. After they’d made their demands, she yelled, ‘This is not America!’ and promptly slammed the door shut. I don’t know who was more shocked, and I was still too young to realise the erroneousness of her statement. Australia may not yet be America, but by God we’re trying our hardest.

So take heart and suck it up. Put those little orange stickers on your front gate – hell, paint the whole thing orange; grab a few pumpkins and relieve your frustrations with the biggest knife you have; buy kilos of chocolate (the cheap kind) so by the time the little darlings get home it’s melted to brown goo; pull a sheet off your bed and wrap yourself in it — not toga-like, of course; this isn’t a Roman orgy. And when you open your door to their sing-song voices and their cherubic smiles, smile back and thank all that is Australian that we haven’t (yet) adopted more outlandish traditions.

If there’s any consolation to be found, it’s this: you may never fully embrace or even enjoy Halloween, but you can be sure your role as the Grinch in upcoming neighbourhood Christmas festivities is already firmly established.

Jane Abbott   

 

Want to read more whinges? Visit Big Bad Words

Name Tag Etiquette

Confused name tagQ: I recently attended an industry function where we were all made to wear name tags. Mine had a faulty clip and kept falling off. When I took it back to the registration desk they said they had no spares but still insisted I had to have one and wrote my name on a sticky label instead. Now my silk shirt has a horrible rectangular stain; even dry-cleaning hasn’t been able to remove it. What’s the best way to get out of wearing one next time?

Branded, VIC


A: Name tags are pesky things. As if walking into a room filled with three hundred people you don’t know isn’t daunting enough, you’re immediately presented with a far more practical dilemma: how to affix your tag one-handedly because your nervousness has prompted you to seize a too-early drink from a passing waiter.

Now, instead of entering with rehearsed confidence, you’re forced to shuffle in with bowed head, fondling your left breast while you press an already bespattered, wrinkled and too-sticky label to uncooperative material. Clips are worse because unless you have a neck like a giraffe (and a nearby table on which to set down your glass) it’s impossible to align the tag, and everyone has to spend the next four hours with heads tilted to an uncomfortable twenty-degrees just to decipher your name. Pins prick tender flesh, bringing tears, (as well as a sharp reminder of why you opted not to get that nipple ring) and tags dangling from lanyards are no good either; threatening to choke, they twist and tangle and are forever grazing bowls of congealed taramasalata.

No, there’s no easy way to deal with a name tag. But they are useful, not least because they provide no excuse for the very forgetful. ‘I’m sorry, I can’t remember your name,’ is never heard at a tagged function.

Name tags are the ultimate icebreaker. As graceless as your attempt was to fix the tag (and, later, the label) to your silk shirt, you can be sure everyone else in the room has just wrestled with the same problem, and many a wet-chested, taramasalata-smeared conversation has opened with some kind of tag disparagement.

But for subversives, there are plenty of ways to show disapproval and mess with a name tag. Be creative. Let loose. Imagination over convention, I say. Alternatively, you could pocket the damned thing and encourage the fading art of good old-fashioned introductions. You might be surprised how quickly it trends.

Jane Abbott