Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Me and My memoir

I've been busy getting my memoir, "In Search of Lorenzo", under way over recent months. I'm learning a lot. Fast. Each day. I started doing what I promised myself I would. Write write write - without too much editing. Not only did I succeed in minimising editing, I also managed to minimise any planning.

The second stage has now kicked in. Trying to conceive how this complex story will be told in a cohesive but entertaining way. I've discovered that writing short stories is a doddle compared with developing a more complex and full length narrative. Themes, sub themes, present, past and unknowns conspire to do my head in. In addition, some facts just seem to get in the way of a good story. I'm having to curb my tendency to make things up when faced with contradicting information.

I'm making some headway due to a few factors. One is I'm enjoying the detective work - which I thought would be tedious. Au contraire, there are so many contradictory pieces of information I feel like I'm in the jury room dealing with a complex crime scene, trying to sift fact from fiction and put disparate pieces of information together to make sense. Who should Zi believe? Two, I've allowed myself to inject some literary devices, even created elements, into the narrative. When I can't have been there in 1880 and neither was any other member of the family I'm faced with writing nothing or creating possible scenarios which try to capture some elements of the conumdrum facing illiterate peasant Italian migrants (who probably didn't even see themselves as Italian, given that italy didn't exist as a nation until 1861).

The other great help is attending a writing workshop.

Iattended the second in a series of four last week and had a couple of lightbulb moments. Nerida got us to write three beginnings to our work - one from a character perspective, one from a descriptive position and the last taking an element from the middle of the narrative and bringng it forward. That was liberating and I'll use all three somewhere in the memoir. We also discussed structure and tension which is fine if you're writing a fiction novel where you are in total control of the events. In a memoir based on facts, the challenge is where do I find the tension. How do I make each section, each chapter, build to a climax or at the very least overcome some obstacle on the way to the finale. Tough but exciting.

So without wanting to bore you to tears here is a sample of one of the beginnings I wrote at the workshop which I have used as the opening in this early draft.

In Search of Lorenzo
Going Home
‘Should we get on with it?’ My niece has a deadline to meet. She needs to navigate the rough dirt track to her hippie caravan in the mountains before dark. That’s a two hour drive away in the ranges behind the Tweed Valley.
‘It won’t work here’, comments my aunt. ‘The wind’s in the wrong direction. The ashes will blow straight back into our faces. There’s a jetty on the other side that might work.’
‘I don’t want you to put poppa in the river’, says my daughter from the back seat of the car where it’s warm and where she’s lying prone, the victim of an early winter flu. ‘That’s all I’ve got left of him. Can’t we keep him?’
There are seven of us here on Kev’s anniversary a year after his death in 2007. We plan to return him to his beloved Richmond River. We are upstream from his old family home; cane fields mark the other side of the river and beyond that the Pacific Ocean attacks a wild windswept coastline.
I want this to be meaningful. This man was special. I want to watch my father’s ashes drift downstream ten kilometers to Ballina where they will mingle with the salty waters washing the headland and beaches, home to the prawns which the locals have made their icon. The home of ‘The Big Prawn’.
This is a key step in bringing Kev home and resolving his conflicted relationship with his Italian and Irish heritage but we can’t seem to get it right. The picture I have in my head doesn’t match the reality of this day. This bit of the story is every bit as hard to put in place as every other piece of the puzzle spanning the preceding one hundred and thirty years.

In 1880 Tom Kilcoyne was preparing his family for escape from the 1879 famine sweeping through County Mayo in Ireland destined to join the tens of thousands of refugees heading for Australia for a new life. In Veneto, Lorenzo Perin had joined a group of local peasant families who had invested their life savings in a scheme which promised them a slice of paradise in the South Pacific. Thomas and Lorenzo were my father’s maternal and paternal grandfathers.

In 1980, in a small war service home in Brisbane, my father was preparing to embrace his Italian heritage publicly for the first time. He was fifty nine. The shame of growing up Italian was about to be expunged. He was about to travel to northern NSW, his ancestral home, to celebrate a little known, yet dramatic, event in Italian/Australian history.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Book club musing

I'm a member of a book club at my local bookstore, Avid Reader.

Every month Avid publishes a magazine reviewing books but also inviting writers to contribute material on the monthly theme. The last one focused on the Brisbane floods, in particular the impact on the local community. I contributed a couple of pieces which I had posted on this blog.

Last week I received an email from Krissy at the shop asking if I'd like to contribute to the next one. The theme: 'Book Clubs'. She sent me a series of questions to answer and I thought that, as I have been a bit tardy with my blog lately, that this might interest a few people. so here are the questions and my answers:

1 Which bookclub are you a member of and how long have you been in the club?

Austrtalian Book Club first Tuesday evening of the month.

2 Can you remember a particular discussion that stands out from one of the bookclubs? Something funny or aweful or divisive or a transformative moment that changed your mind about a particular book? Tell us what happened.

Most interesting night was the night Justice Michael Kirby was speaking on the back deck. We were an embarrassment to Avid in our jeans and with a bottle of plonk being shared around our circle, so we were hidden upstairs in the store-room. We organized ourselves with some crackers and cheese (courtesy of Avid) balanced on a packing crate and found some seating, some on chairs, others on benches. Someone offered to sit on the floor. Fiona popped a bottle of red and then apologised and left us to ourselves. We were a bit miffed about being abandoned in favour of Justice Michael but soldiered on.

This group of five mature adults were suddenly faced with facilitating our own discussion. Or just drinking. We had a great time and, as is always the case, the absence of one changed the dynamics of all and we found ourselves having the same conversation but in a different way.

Fiona had to throw us out eventuually. And we didn't regret missing Justice Michael at all.

I can't even remember the book we were disecting.

3 Why did you initially join a bookclub? Why do you stay?

I was interested in connecting with other readers and possibly writers. I was also keen to connect with local community activities as I was moving from full time to part time work. I wanted to feed my creative side after too many years of work,which I loved but which dominated my life.

I 've been a member since it started which I think is about 12 months.

I keep coming back for a couple of reasons. Firstly I like the imposed discipline requiring me to read at least a book a month. Secondly I like the social element - meeting a small group of people over a glass of wine where the personalities emerge over time. And we laugh.

4 What book are you currently reading for bookclub?

'Bereft' by Chris Womersley

5 What is your favourite book that you have read for bookclub?

Favourite has probably been 'Me and Mr Booker' by Cory Taylor

but the one which has stayed with me has been Ashley Hay's 'The Body in the Clouds' which had a magic realism quality and spanned the period from the first days of the colony to the present; a series of parallel stories all built around Sydney Harbour and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

6 Are your favourite books the best to discuss? Or are there other factors that make other books better to talk about?

The most interesting discussions have been where members of the group had widely different responses to the book of the month. In that case each of us had to pause and try and understand what others saw in the book and be challenged to articulate our point of view. Much more interesting than all agreeing with each other.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Peter Otto and the End of the World

He was too well read. He believed the fundamentalist guppies who told him that 21 May 2011 would be the end of the world. Peter Otto's reincarnation was joyful but short lived.

I have been visiting the pond in the back yard to gaze at the risen Peter each day since I discovered him. Late last week I was rewarded in my vigil. I approached the bottom of the yard quietly so as not to disturb him. Until then he had still been a golden glow deep in the water. This time, there he was in his element, in a sublime meditative state, swimming near the surface. Feeding. His golden colours made me feel like I was looking at the sun. So orange. So bright. I was enthralled. That was early Saturday 21 May.

Yesterday (Sunday 22 May) I returned from a day at my "Year of the Memoir" writing workshop and headed for the pond as my first port of call. I called to my son to come have a look at this wonder.

There he was at the surface again. Only this time he was meditating on his side. Floatng rather than swimming.
He's dead. said Nick.
No he's not. I said. He's resting.
Dead. Gone to heaven, Nick repeated.
I gave the bullrushes a shake and I'm sure he flicked his fin and moved forward.
No. said Nick. You just pushed him.

The original PeterOtto used to do this I reminded him. It was the cause of his demise. My sister in law, who was minding the house for a week while we were away, mistook his resting for rigor mortis and, with what she thought was compassion, relocated him to the freezer so we would be able to bury him on our return.

So I poked him. I was not going to be suckered by a fish a second time. He moved but only to float again to the surface, inert.

Shit. I thought. After surviving for two years undetected he now returns for only 7 days and on the seventh day he's cardiac arrested. Perhaps the Fundamental Christians were right after all except their predictions were not intended for humans but for fish. Have there been other reports of mass endings of goldfish on 21 May. Conspiracy theorists would posit that even if this mass death scenario were true the code of silence amongst goldfish would prevent us from knowing.

Or perhaps this was a message from a higher being to remind me of the folly of worshipping golden idols.

Whatever the meaning I resolved to return to the pond to capture this event on film and to transfer "Peter Otto the Second" to the freezer to join his predessor in a cyrogenic state.

Unfortunately I got distracted and an hour later I make the return trip to the bottom of the garden. It was dark by this time, so I took my camera and shot a series of photos with my flash. Back in the house I reviewed the photos and was amazed and perplexed to find no sign of Peter's golden glow. I returned this morning to confirm my worst fears and there was no sign of him. No amount of rustling or peering into the murky depths revealed any sign of him. He had been assumed into fish heaven. Another miracle.

I will be writing to the Pope to beseech him to put Peter Otto on his list of possibles for sainthood. The Catholics need a new focus. They have created dozens of new saints lately in a wide range of non mainstrweam communities but none in the marine world. There are millions of potential converts waiting for "The Word".

And the word is 'blubb'

Monday, 9 May 2011

Miracle fish

Peter Otto was a special fish. He lived for ten years in a gold fish bowl swimming in one direction until he died of arthritis brought on by his uni-directional habit. His spine became permanently curved towards his right shoulder. An occasional anti-clockwise lap of his pool may have extended his life even beyond his remarkable years.

Peter Otto 's major challenge in life was maintaining a working set of gills in the midst of the ever darkening toxic waters of his tiny bowl. Adventure was not a concept known to him.

Perhaps his longevity was due to his zen-like acceptance of his simple life and an understanding that the way forward was the way forward. I would have died of boredom.

Peter Otto died a lonely accidental death in the freezer compartment of our fridge and now resides forever at the bottom of our garden. Our garden of our last house that is. He never made the transition.

At our new house we put in an above ground pool which after ten (yes ten again) years we ripped out and replanted as a garden. As a way of fulfilling our need for 25 thousand liters of water in our backyard we included a 250 litre pottery water container amidst the new plantings. It was home to water lilies and some bullrushes. Concerned about the possibility of breeding swarms of disease bearing mosquitoes at the bottom of our garden I sought advice from my local aquarium and brought home some guppies who were guaranteed to devour the larvae before they could hatch.

Whether these tiny fish were what attracted our new visitors I wasn't sure but a day later a family of kookaburras began visiting the pond, perching on the edge and plunging in for a cool bath or carving up the water lilies with their powerful beaks. Within two days there was no sign of the guppies and the lilies never recovered. Had the guppies died of fright? Were the kookas just great at fishing?

I tried a second time and this time included a goldfish, thinking that this hardy breed might fight off the invading swimmers. Within two days the pond was again silent. The kookas continued to visit and entertain us. I kept a container of fish food for a few months then chucked it in the bin. Meanwhile the garden grew. The bottom of the garden became a wild place. The bullrushes fought back and the kookas couldn't find a landing spot. The lime tree failed to produce a crop two years in a row while my composting system evolved and became my pride and joy. I even put together a vegetable plot and provided the family with a regular supply of leafy greens.

This last weekend I did my regular wander to the bottom of the garden - "inspecting the estate". I pulled a few weeds, talked to the lime tree and harvested a handful of late season macadamia nuts from the tree overhanging the old pool site. As I passed the pond something caught my eye. I froze, staring into the murky depths beyond the scummy surface. At first I thought it was the light revealing the colour of the root system at the base of the reeds. I touched a reed. The rusty colour disappeared. I stood for another minute and the colour didn't reappear. so I wandered on.

As I passed by a second time there it was again, a rusty orange spot, motionless. Another jiggle of a reed and there was a small movement. Another and another. I called for verification from an independent observer and sure enough there it was. Peter Otto had been reincarnated as himself. A gold fish living in my pond which I had passed by every week for two years?

Was this a miracle? Had this visitor been deposited by a passing bird of prey? Had he been sent as a sign to me? What was I to make of this? Was there something in my life which I should change? Should I divorce my wife of thirty years? Was it there to help me understand that my new career as an unemployed freelance community worker would take time to emerge? Was it showing me that patience and acceptance were virtues that would bear fruit in the long term? Or should I pack up my worldly goods and go and hide from the world? Become a hermit in a cave, or in a large pottery container?

I considered heading for the shop to pick up a new container of fish food then reconsidered. A fish that had survived on the detritus of pond life for two years needed no help from me.

I considered all the options offered my by this sign from the pond and decided to stay. I'm still here close to the miraculous site. Welcome home Peter Otto (the second coming).

Friday, 6 May 2011

Stories of loss and survival

Photo courtesy of Cara - Brisbane Daily Photo Blog

Last Friday evening our local bookshop (Avid Reader) hosted a night of storytelling. The West End Making History group invited community members to come along and share their experiences of the recent disaster. It was a simple community building night. I was invited to play MC.

What a great night. We had lined up a range of people ranging from Theo, a Greek born gentleman who had experienced both the 1974 and 2011 floods in West End (where each time his corner shop had gone under) to Bronwyn who told us of having 26 children under 5 in her back yard at one stage (two sets of twins, one pair being their birthday). People simply dropped kids off on their way to help or to survey the damage.

At 80 Theo has single-handedly stripped and relined the walls of his shop. He shared his distress that followed each event, despite having experienced this previously. With great compassion he expressed deep understanding for those who had been hit this time;
Dan O'Neill had lost hundreds of books from his lifetime library collection;
Francesca told of "looting" her friend'sTony's house with the help an extended network of friends while Tony and his family were away in New Zealand unaware of the impending disaster. Strangely, Francesca's kids knew, not only where the spare key was hidden, but also where the private family documents were stashed.
Tim Quinn told of missing out on both floods despite have been born and lived in the suburb his whole life and Bu, from Ache, Indonesia (his story appears earlier in these blogs as "Disaster is relative - Bill and Bu") told of his relief at knowing he had lost no family members and still had a (rather wet) house to live in.

The mostly late 30s to 70s audience all marvelled at the role young people had played in the post flood recovery and 19 year old Verdi shared her simple perspective: there was a need to help, so we just did it.

Local photographer Cara G has captured the night on her brisbane daily photo blog. as well as some great photos of the events as they unfolded in January.

And so the stories ripple on, building connections across the community in ways we can't predict.

My question now is how far to go in collecting these and other stories more formally in an attempt to capture this oral history for the future? Has the rush of initial energy disippated? Is the pain still too fresh in people's minds to see this as a priority?

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Last Drinks

We'd had a great day. The Barossa Valley vineyards winked at us, their afternoon autumn colours flashing through the red gums lining the road as we turned for home. We'd visited Maggie Beer's farm and picked up some of her treats as featured on her TV show "The Cook and the Chef", Maggie being the cook. The Richmond Grove winery had treated us to a set of Rieslings going back as far as 1998, the leftovers from the previous day's wine-tasting festival.

Denis suggested we finish the day with a visit to one of the boutique wineries of Eden Valley about thrity kilometres south on the Adelaide Road. Denis always makes things sound so certain that I had visions of him leading us to his favourite secret location, carefully chosen from the many. From the passenger seat I opened the tourist map to peruse our options. Mike, who had demanded we stop at the very first winery we encountered and then argued for a stop at every one of the sixty in the Barossa region, seemed content in the back seat. His taste buds had been satisfied with our choices. He and his wife Angela were in their first month of their drive around Australia, having begun two thousand miles north in Queensland.

I could only find one cellar door listed in the Eden Valley district. That'll do said Denis, barely betraying the fact that he hadn't had a clue where we were heading. It was quarter past four. My guidebook informed me that Fernfield Wines was open seven days a week from 10am to 5pm. We turned left off the main road as we passed the Eden Valley Hotel and were soon following a dirt road which followed the vineyards planted to follow the contours of the low hills. The entrance to Fernfield had a 'Cellar Door Open' sign propped beside the road but the signage on the gate informed us that they were only open 4 days a week from 11am to 4pm. It was four twenty. We all felt deflated but spying a figure in the distance and sensing an opportunity we boldly ignored the sign and cruised through the open gate.

Are you still open we asked the young woman standing beside the drive. She gave us a doubtful look and with a shrug of resignation, or a sniff of one last sale, she ushered us towards a small stone cottage fifty metres distant. I guess we can make an exception since you're already here she added. She was a broad faced woman in her late thirties with the smile and sense of purpose of a working farmer.I've been pressing all day she said proffering her purple palms as proof.

Inside the stone cottage we found ourselves in a room with space for no more than the four of us and her behind the bar. The walls were lined with photos of the farm and images of her father, grandfather, great and great great grandfather - the original. She was a great storyteller and for forty minutes we laughed and joked and heard about the family and the wine and were utterly charmed by this young woman. The feeling it seemed was mutual.

Fernfield was the ultimate family boutique winery. Mother was the winemaker, having enrolled at age fifty-five in a viticulture course which took her ten years to complete; father and brother were the farm workers tending the vines with love and Rebecca was the marketing manager. Come harvest time the four of them joined forces to hand pick, hand crush and hand bottle the fruits of their labour, four thousand cases. Mother's wine had won a medal every year sine 2002 when she created her first vintage - much to the exasperation of the major wine companies of the Barossa who took it as given that they would be the celebrated winemakers. The wine was fabulous. Rebecca's energy and enthusiasm gave it a quality that totally seduced us.

As we turned to leave this charming room, our arms laden with one of every wine on offer I spotted a business card on the sideboard. I figured I might need this as I'd ordered a case and might need to contact Rebecca if it went astray in the post between Eden Valley and Brisbane. I quickly scanned the details. Wait wait wait! I called to the other three. We're not finished here yet. There's one more thing.

Denis looked at me thinking what is Steve on about this time. I looked at Rebecca. She looked at me. You want one don't you she said. Yes I replied. If that's possible. By now Denis and Mike and Angela had stopped in their tracks and were in consensus that I'd obviously lost it. I pointed to the business card, reading: Rebecca Plummer, Marketing and Cellar Door Manager/Singer.

Denis is a musician, a music lover. He was captivated. What do you sing he asked. Oh, opera, classical stuff. You know. The girl with purple hands was suddenly transformed before our eyes. We were in the presence of a character from a grand opera, set in a rustic barn surrounded by us as chorus.

Rebecca offered us a couple of options. Something French I urged. And then Rebecca, eyes closed, standing behind the cellar door bar, a line of half empty bottles of red wine in the foreground, sang us a beautiful unaccompanied version of Piaf's La Vie en Rose .

As she sang she gained in power and knowing she had us in the palms of her grape crushing hands took us on an emotional ride, making eye contact and becoming the epitome of the popular cabaret performer. God, what a way to end the day. As she finished I could hardly speak. I spontaneously took her in my arms and gave her a hug as if she were my daughter. Denis followed.

We walked towards the car in silence, our spirits lifted by this moment you could never hope to manufacture. As we drove off Denis, not one to readily give voice to his emotions, shared his inner most manly feelings with us. I had a tear in my eye at the end there, he said, his footballer's eyes misting up.

Open Ocean Swim

Flying home from Adelaide on a Friday night close to midnight I needed some sleep. In a moment of enthusiastic folly I had agreed to join my friend Paul and his son in the Byron Bay Winter Whales Annual Open Ocean swim event. My first ocean swim. Paul has become a regular participant in this growing phenomenon along the east coast of Australia.

My son had made a late decision to join us, as had Paul's wife, so from an intimate trio of swimmers we became a two car team of five. Paul had introduced me to the YHA network in Murwillumbah recently and Andrea and I had stayed at a number of comfortable and friendly hostels on our trip to Adelaide. So here we were at the Byron Bay YHA.

This one was more like the hostels I had memories of. Large numbers of young backpackers packed into dorms and enjoying each other's noisy company. We had the luxury of a family unit which slept four. My son was number five so he ended up sharing a room with eight other young men. Paul and his wife went shopping for ear plugs in anticipation of anything other than a slent night.

On Sunday morning I collected my yellow swim cap, my electronic ankle tag and my complimentary Winter Whales cap and joined 1200 others on the beach. I was swimming the mini swim - 800 metres across the bay from the Clarke's Beach headland to the surflifesaving clubhouse. About 250 other mini swimmers joined me while 1000 others headed for the Byron Bay lighthouse and Watego's Beach for their much more demanding 2.4 klm marathon.

The day was sunny, the water cool and the swell small. I was up against fellow competitiors ranging in age from nne years to eighty nine. To cut a long story short I survived. Every nine year old beat my time, half the women did the same and Paul, who swam the 2.4 k event, swam three times the distance in the about the same time as I swam my 800 metres.

I must point out that I did not come dead last. The 89 year old was behind me as were about 34 other mini swimmers. I now begin my preparation for next year knowing that there is definitely room for improvement. I aim to cut at least five minutes from my 37 minutes.

What was impressive was the broad spread of ages in the thousand odd entrants and the number of entrants in the 70+ age group. It's exciting to think that if one keeps swimming there is no reason why one can't simply, keep swimming. My son, a physical education teacher has offered to set up a training program for me. I need to train my body to be less accustomed to stopping for a breather and a cup of coffee after each 100 metres. I discovered that there are no lanes and no hand rails in the open ocean.