Monday, 31 July 2006

Materials engineering reunion - conquering demons

Tonight I attended a materials engineering reunion. I was rather looking forward to it, but at the same time felt nervous. I spent many years in the Monash Uni materials engineering department (11) and used to feel like an ingrained part of the institution. But there is no denying that by the time I left I was very glad to see the back of the place.

I have not been back many times since I left almost seven years ago, and it has been almost that long since I last happened to visit. Looking back, it seems strange that I cut off such an integral part of my life so completely, but I don't think I was quite sane at the time. My thesis had driven me into the ground and I don't think I will EVER forget the sense of relief at submitting it. (As a writer I will draw on that day, over and over.)

Once it was submitted I fled the place, having to drag myself in months later to clear up all my stuff. My relationship with the department decayed and warped - it symbolised all that was painful, and memories were bitter.

But that really isn't fair. I had many good times as both an undergraduate and postgraduate, made many friends. We stuck tazos on our office door, made mobiles out of kinder surprise toys and cooked blueberry muffins in the muffle furnace! More than that, I actually found my thesis topic interesting, much as I despaired at ever completing the thesis to my supervisor's satisfaction. Time heals and seven years later I feel rather nostalgic about my time at Monash, particularly after seeing many familar faces this evening.

There was one final demon I had to conquer tonight. I had to confront my former supervisor. Part of me knew that I had to go to the reunion even if he was the only person I spoke to. It's seven years later, for crying out loud! I'm no longer the shattered, despairing student with zero confidence or self esteem! I no longer have to wallow in the shadow of his disapproval! I've recovered! I've moved on!

With the help of a friend still within the department, I got it over and done with. He gave me a really strange look, then we proceeded to talk. I gabbled on about my current job, babbled about how well I was doing, then we ended up discussing his retirement plans of breeding (and perhaps training) thoroughbred horses. Then I was saved by speeches.

It was a strange evening. The department has changed a lot in seven years - for once thing it's physically relocating. This event was held in a building that didn't exist seven years ago. But nostalgia tugged at me during one of the presentations (rather ironically from my former supervisor) which made me realise that I do actually miss dabbling in materials to some extent.

And the number of times I had to explain what I am doing now!

But the strangest, most surreal moment came towards the end, when I caught up with one of the departmental general staff (J). She commented on how she'd seen me talking with my former supervisor, and how surprised (and amused) she'd been. How it was common knowledge that I was one of his failures! I'm not a failure, I cried, I passed my thesis! Of course, she replied, but to him you'll always be one of his failures. You fell off the pedestal and he never forgave you that your thesis wasn't as brilliant as he wanted it to be.

I'm sure this is partly exaggeration, but I am equally sure it's partly true. What's astounding is the implication that the entire department seemed to be aware of his sentiments. I was not at all offended by these revelations - more morbidly curious to find out just how bad his opinion of me went. I should also add that J holds malice and contempt towards him, not me, and that her rather confronting frankness, while unexpected in terms of content, was quite in character!

So now I have some idea of just how much of a disappointment I was as a postgraduate student. And I have confronted the demon himself and come away smiling. I don't think I will be nervous about future alumni functions, should they have them.

One final thing I will add. Upon hearing that I was now a technology communicater/writer, my former supervisor said, "You always did have better writing skills than the average postgraduate student." Since most of his postgrad students had English as a second language, this is not a compliment of the highest order!

I am very glad that meeting is out of the way.

Wednesday, 26 July 2006

words for the week - 1573

And so it goes on. 1573 words for the week. Just scraped in. Finished a long chapter, which was a good feeling. It was a chapter I'd been working on for over two months!! (With an extensive gap in the middle.) The chapter ended up 8,500 words long and was quite a pivotal scene.

So now I go on my merry way, trying desperately to keep hurting my characters. I don't think I'm very good at it.

I'm about 53,000 words into the novel now, almost halfway! If I can get to 80,000 by the end of this year, I'll be overjoyed. In theory, if I can average 6,000 words a month I'll get there. On the other hand, if I average 4,000 words per month (more likely) I should get to 73,000 which I'd settle for quite happily.

Then it should only take another year (at 4000 words per month) to get to 120,000 (the end). BUT . . . much better to average 6000 from here, then I'd be done by next July!!!

Enough futile analysis - bottom line is I just need to write!

Sunday, 23 July 2006

A fruitful weekend

Out of the depths of winter springs a sunny weekend. This prompted me to get outside and spend some time in my garden.

I am not much of a gardener. I'm neither very good at it, nor do I have a passion for it. Occasionally, however, the mood takes me. I dabbled with home produce last summer. Nothing spectacular, just some tomatoes, rocket and a few herbs. But I really enjoyed the experience and am hoping to repeat it this coming summer, plus raise it a notch or two.

I read somewhere that you're supposed to prepare the soil during winter, some weeks prior to planting. I also read that this is the time for planting fruit trees. (I should add at this juncture that neither am I much of a fruit eater . . .) I remembered seeing at Garden World in Keysborough these fabulous columnar apple trees - essentially a single spike upon which apples grow. Ideal for small, narrow gardens. I wanted one then. So I remembered it now.

I went to Garden World.

I spent a little while perusing the various soil conditioners, composts, fertilisers, blood & bone, etc etc and drew a blank. I also looked at the bare rooted apple trees and wondered what I was supposed to do with them. In the end, this very nice lady assisted and instructed just what to do with what as far as the soil stuff went. She then told me I had to buy TWO apple trees (unless a neighbour had a Ganny Smith tree) so that the bees could pollinate them.

Well, I have no idea what my neighbours have, so I bought two apple trees. (OMG! TWO apple trees!)

By the time I had finished at Garden World and got to my garden at home it was about 4pm and the day was becoming cool. Nevertheless, I sprinkled and dug in the compost and fertiliser, decided where to put the TWO apple trees and planted them.

In addition to apple trees I bought a number of other plants that took my fancy, so today I had another planting day. I planted some rosemary that had been sitting in a pot, plus a plant that might be a chilli plant, plus some gorgeous little flame grass from NZ, plus a protea (?) which necessitated transplating an ailing butterfly bush . . . so you can see I was very busy!

I don't know what I'm going to do with two apple trees. It could be that the evil possums will get all the new shoots and it will have been a complete waste of time! Let's see. Maybe I'll learn to eat more apples.

Wednesday, 19 July 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean - Dead Man's Chest

I saw this last night and I have to say I was really disappointed - more so than I expected. There have been plenty of sequels over the years that haven't lived up to the brilliance of the first movie, but usually there's been something to enjoy while reflecting upon what might have been. (Think Temple of Doom, Matrix Reloaded . . .)

The first Pirates of the Caribbean was fabulous. The type of movie you want to watch again straight away. I own the DVD and have watched it heaps of times. The plot is tight and for the most part cohesive (OK, there is a major hole in the explanation of why Bootstrap Bill's blood is required . . .) and the comedy plays around the edges nicely.

In Dead Man's Chest, the plot seems all over the place, plus the comedy is more slapstick and tries to take over. Johnny Depp is still wonderful, but the rest of the cast seem to lack that certain 'zing' that made the first movie just work. The dialogue also lacked the same cleverness that the first had. I came out wondering whether I could be bothered sitting through it again, let alone speculating when the DVD might come out.

Some things I did like: the way 'Commodore' Norrington was used in the story, Johnny Depp's eye makeup when he was the chieftan, Orlando Bloom (always nice to look at), the Phantom of the Opera moment with Davy Jones . . . I'll add more when I think of them.

PS. I am clearly outnumbered. Here's a link to the review by At the Movies. Both Margaret and David loved it!

Words for the week - 1228

A far cry from last week, but at least still above 1000. Considering I completely wasted the weekend (wrote not a word) I didn't do too badly to crack 1000. All due to a mighty effort on Monday night.

Monday, 17 July 2006

Books that make you cry

As a writer, I would give anything to be able to make a reader cry. Usually it occurs on the death of a character, but only if the character is drawn with skill and sympathy. To create a character that is so well loved by a reader that when he or she dies, the reader cries, must be the ultimate goal. The same is true on the death of a character, perhaps not so well drawn in itself, but whose relationship with another character is so important.

I have just finished reading Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn. (Warning: spoiler!) This book made we weep at the injustice of a particular character's death (and the manner of it) and rant with rage at the characters whose interference caused it to happen. Indeed, I felt far greater rage at the friend whose betrayal led to the incident, than I did at the actual perpetrators.

This is what makes great fiction. The ability to pit characters' desires against each other, so that conflict arises, not out of hatred or rage, but out of differing objectives. When it comes down to a simple choice - and a decision. In Across the Nightingale Floor, I always suspected this character was going die. So the power of the incident lay in the fact that he came out second best in the tug-of-war over the protagonist. Friends became - not enemies - but helpless rivals. The stakes were just too high for one of them - and lead to severe regret on the part of the betrayor.

The other thing that made it so powerful for me was the protagonist's plight. We only really know the doomed character through the protagonist, but it was the strength of the relationship between them that made it so moving. For the protagonist to have 'the rug' so firmly pulled out from under his feet, preventing him from carrying out a critical task - indeed, the task the whole book had been building towards - and thereby doom this character, was masterful.

Others might argue that this is the stuff all stories are made of, but I would argue that not all stories make me cry. Or even make me feel such passion towards or against the characters. I say again, if I could do that as a writer, I would feel as though something had validated my crazy notion of wanting to write novels.

This book is the book we're reading during July for my reading group, Page Turners. I will post a summary of our discussion after the meeting, which is to be held on 3 August.

I am now going out to buy numbers 2 and 3 in this fantasy trilogy. And I can't wait.

[NOTE: I mention below that I was going to load this novel as an audiobook. I did do this, and started off listening to it while walking. However, yesterday I became obsessed. I listened to it while cooking dinner, and while eating dinner, and then grabbed the book itself (fortunately within reach) and read the conventional way until 3:00 am when I finally finished it.]

Thursday, 13 July 2006

Audiobooks are OK

It's surprising how something seemingly minor can have a huge impact on your life.

The minor thing was the gift of an MP3 player. I had been wanting one for a while, mainly because it was 'the thing' to have. But did I think I'd use one? Well, yes, but not much. It would be kind of cool to have access to my CD collection all the time, but was that reason enough to go out and buy one? Not really. Needless to say, when the decision was taken out of my hands, I was thrilled.

It seemed fabulous timing, because the laser on my CD player has died, and the ability to plug an MP3 player into my stereo has been a godsend . . . but the revolution came when I was given The Da Vinci Code as an audio book in MP3 format.

I had not read The Da Vinci Code, but in the foreshadow of the overwhelming movie hype, my father had acquired it from someone as MP3. It crossed my mind - no more than a fleeting thought at first - that perhaps I could listen to it and walk to work.

I live around 3.5 km from work. It's really not that far, and the few times I had walked it, it had taken around 40-45 mins. This, one might think, is an ideal walking distance. But there were always excuses: Too hard to get up an extra 45 mins early (my favourite excuse); too dark in the evenings; I get home too late; why waste the company car . . .

Having loaded The Da Vinci Code onto my MP3 player, I got up one morning and walked to work. At the end of the day, I found myself looking forward to the walk home, so I could listen to the next installment. It didn't matter that it was the depths of winter - I donned beanie and scarf. It didn't matter that I got home quite late - I could always stop off at the local Asian restaurant and buy takeaway instead of cooking. It didn't even matter that the book was badly written and irritating. The fact that I had 'the next installment' to look forward to was enough. The story completely swept me away and I forgot to be bored with the walking.

This really is a revelation. As a writer, I have a very sedentary lifestyle, and after giving up a weekly netball game a few years ago, I've done very little exercise since. In the midst of turning into a lump (or perhaps I already have . . .) I was looking for a means of incorporating exercise into my routine. I've never been to a gym, and have lacked incentive to do any exercise at all. Now walking has taken on a whole new life of its own - plus I get to churn through books while I'm at it!

I have set myself the goal of walking to and from work twice a week. There are times when I can't achieve this owing to other work or after-work commitments (where I might need my car, for example) but on the whole I'm doing pretty well. This week, I have walked two ways on Monday and Tuesday, one-way today, and probably one-way tomorrow.

Since The Da Vinci Code, I have listened to some Sherlock Holmes stories (also obtained from my father) and am currently listening to Temple (by Matthew Reilly). Tonight I am about to load Across the Nightingale Floor, which is my Page Turners book of the month. After some investigation it seems the best way of getting hold of them is to borrow books on CD from the library.

I should finish up with the thought that one of my friends has been listening to audiobooks in the car for years, and I recall a trip to Sydney we shared, when we obsessively listened to Faro's Daughter. I have also passed on my walking tip to another friend and she is now as addicted as I am.

So now I am a convert to the audiobook - although I still love reading the conventional way in the evenings. It just means that I'm getting through even more reading than I was before - which can only be a good thing. As I get more used to it, I might even go more highbrow and listen to some stuff that is harder to get into late at night, when I'm tired. All hail to the audiobook!!

Wednesday, 12 July 2006

Words for the week - 2049

Since last year, when I did a novel writing class, I have been reporting each Wednesday the number of words written for the week. Originally it was to the class, but since finishing it has been to two fellow writers who were also in the class. Part of the deal was to nominate a target for the week and I've kept that up this year as well. My target/quota is 1500 words per week.

This might not sound like very many, but I'm a very slow writer. I like to 'sculpt' a story rather than let it splurge. Last year I averaged just under 1000 words a week. So far this year I'm averaging around 930. (I was going much better until mid-May.)

Anyway, this week I had a MUCH better week – 2049 words to be precise. The last time I cracked my quota was 17 May and the last time I cracked 2000 was 12 April (Easter)!! So I am feeling very happy.

Tuesday, 11 July 2006

Baby Jessica

This is my newest niece, baby Jessica, born Monday 3 July at 13:29. She's still very small, but we have decided she'll be a netballer extraordinaire for the Melbourne Phoenix - in about 18 years time.

Weekends are never long enough

And number 3:

There are always so many things to do on the weekend. This weekend I had nothing specific planned - except for a hair appointment - but still I feel as though I've been racing against the clock. It's all because I need to fit so many things in. Over a year ago now I instigated the 'weekend list', which comprises a list of everything I either want or need to do on any given weekend. Such as housework. Such as shopping for various items. Such as writing. Such as visiting family. Such as social engagements. . . Everything gets written down and scheduled - including sleep-ins!

This weekend, I have spent quality time with family. As mentioned, my sister (S) has had baby #3 (Jessica) and my mother is in charge of #1 and #2 (Hannah and Wesley), who are 'having a holiday with Nana'. I love being an aunt, so I spent Saturday afternoon visiting 'the jungle' (on Rippon Lea estate) with Hannah and Wes. We crept through 'the jungle', looking out for monsters and lions (as you do) and then wandered over the many bridges in the garden and climbed the lookout tower and played in all the dead leaves under a massive old oak(?) tree and hid in 'the cave' (a visitors' rotunda).

This afternoon, I visited the other side of this equation - baby Jessica. Not that I actually saw her; she was asleep, much to S's enjoyment. Jessica, it seems, is proving an ideal baby so far. This allowed us to have a lovely lunch, and for me to accompany S on a short stroll - her first since delivery (via C). It also allowed me to bequeath the wares acquired during a frenzy of shopping. Earlier today, I had gone into Target for some slippers, and come out with an armful of garments for newborns. It's fabulous being an aunt! So little Jessica can now look cute in a sheep costume and purple sleeping bag-thing and . . .

I also bought a digital camera today (!) so am planning a pictorial blog in the future. This too was on my list, although it was in other ways rather a spur of the moment purchase. However, there was a sale . . .

In all, I consider this a really 'successful' weekend - lots of things ticked off my list. Importantly, I have managed to write on both days - it's been a push, but I've done it. But, as I contemplate work tomorrow, I realise that still the weekend is not long enough! I'm already counting down to the next one.

Why start a blog? - part 2

This was my second post:

For ages I've wanted a presence on the web. But always the question of "why?" would arise. After all, I'm not famous, my life isn't momentous - so who would want to read any web site that I might happen to have? (And what is the point of a web site that nobody reads?)
But still I wanted one - just for the fun of it. So I activated my bigpond web site - but I don't have the skills to upload any content! So it sits there, vacant, with a permanent "under construction" notice. Then blogging became the rage and BigBlog was launched. And so I wanted to blog. But, again, the question was "why bother, if nobody was going to read it?". (And, surely, wanting people to read it was egotistical!)
Two things have swayed me. The first was a dinner party conversation recently on this very topic. There, the point was raised that blogging was in fact taking the place of a diary. It's a record of events for oneself to look back on. Who cares if nobody reads it? I thought this a worthwhile point. Sometimes one just has something to say. And photos to post. When it's just a matter of slotting words and images into a template, it's so easy.
The second thing was the e-mail mentioned in my previous post. Keeping a blog could be a really efficient way of keeping in contact with friends that you don't see that often. Then one wouldn't need to announce three (or more) family milestones in the one breath. Assuming one's friends were interested, they could log in every so often and keep abreast of things. I know I would log into friends' blogs for this reason. I don't spend a lot of time reading blogs as a general rule, but somehow it's more tempting when it's someone you know and care about.
So here I am with my very own blog. I don't know who I'm going to reveal the URL to - if anybody - but it will be fun. It will also be another procrastination tool. I ask myself, as someone who already spends almost every waking moment in front of a computer, why on earth I would choose to do this. And I don't really know - except that I want to. And for the moment that's enough.

Why start a blog?

Today is Tuesday. On Saturday I started a blog somewhere else, but I'm considering transferring to blogger. This was my first entry:

It seems an odd time to start a blog - in more ways than one. Firstly it's almost 1:00am, but I cannot log out without adding the first entry. Secondly, I'm right in the middle of a crazy year, with madness all over the place. I have one sister getting married, another has just had her third baby, plus about two months ago my father had heart surgery. I wrote an e-mail to a friend today, 'updating her on my life' and all these incredibly momentous things poured out in swift succession, each one worthy of an entire e-mail in its own right. For the moment, however, I am going to close here, get some sleep and begin my new life of blogging sometime tomorrow in more detail!