Wednesday, 24 February 2010

One way streets

During the weekend Dr P and I were discussing ways of spending the afternoon, and how to allocate time. I reminded him that SD1 was likely to call in. He said, 'Oh, she will ring to let us know.' 'No she won't, she never does.' I replied. He went off for a sleep, and I sat reading the paper. Suddenly a voice said 'Hello', startling me considerably. There was SD1 and her younger son B2. Yes, they have a key, and no, they did not knock. They never do. Nor, of course, did they phone.

I woke Dr P and then we started trying to get a conversation going. Now Dr P is actually a good conversationalist, and can get people to talk and have interesting discussions. Often, being a stirrer since time immemorial, he likes to get an argument going about such burning issues as green politics, or climate change. Or whatever, so long as it contradicts received opinion. This can be very aggravating at times. Often equally disputatious people fall into the trap. They take the bait, and vigorous argument ensues, with both sides taking fixed and unyielding positions. Sometimes eyes flash, and tempers rise. In contrast, I am a peaceable soul, who would rather have a discussion than a contentious argument. However, if there are guests in our house, he generally makes the effort and is courteous. Now that he is so deaf and forgetful, conversations are more difficult, but he does try. When my daughter visits and we dine together, we all talk to each other, and try to find subjects of mutual interest.

Having a conversation with SD1 is truly hard work, because the conversation is always only one way. Us to her. Never her to us. It is never reciprocal. She never initiates conversation. It is like drawing hens' teeth. It reminds me of those cricketers who block every ball. They don't go for runs, they never go out, they just block. B2 sprawls in the chair and says nothing, and if we ask him anything, there is only the most minimal of replies. Ditto with his mother. Ditto with B1, who is almost 21, evidently an intelligent boy, about to start his honours year at university. Dr P, his grandfather, has a formidable intellect, and had an active and distinguished public life. They ought to be able to find something to talk about. Try as we might, we cannot get any discussion going with him.

We ask SD1 about her week, her children, the school, the progress at university, etc. She/they never ask about us, let alone me. It is not as though I want to dominate the conversation with rivetting facts, insights, intelligent comments, or detailed recitations of my doings. No. I just think that every so often she could help out a bit in the conversational stakes.

On her previous visit, I told her I wanted to go to Canberra to see my children and to see the Musee d'Orsay exhibition at the National Gallery, and asked could she help during my absence and help look after her father. Yes, she could. We emailed about dates. I sent an email to let her know my plans, adding that my sisters and I want to visit our older sister, who is seriously ill. On this visit I asked her if she had she received my email. Yes, she had.

If I had received such an email, I would have replied, expressing concern and making enquiries. And on meeting I would have said something like, 'I am sorry to hear your sister is ill. How is she, and what is the matter? Yes, of course, whatever I can do to help.' Not a word. When I mentioned the prospective visit, Dr P, asked 'This is so you can all see your very sick sister?' Yes, I said. Still not a word. The message I am receiving is that she does not want to know about any of my concerns, anything about me, and that as far as she is concerned I am a non-person, or at best a regrettable necessity.

A couple of people who have known her for far longer than I have (which is 20 years) told me that she never had anything much to say about anything. Perhaps I should not take it personally. Except. We have a mutual concern, someone we both love. Her father, who is my husband. You would think we could occasionally discuss his state of health, and his care. And that she could improve her manners.

Even Dr P thinks they are hard work!

Monday, 15 February 2010

Passing away

For the last couple of weeks I have been reading death notices. Suddenly, it seems, no one dies. They pass away. Or they pass away peacefully. If they don't pass away, the notices seldom say'Died'. More usually they include a date, which gives the inference of the fact. My friend M, whose husband died a year ago, says she had to insist t the funeral director that the death notice should say 'died' instead of 'passed away'.

What is this sudden fashion, or passion for euphemisms? Is death the ultimate taboo? Evidently expletives no longer have to be deleted, but instead occur every second or third word, irrespective of the subject under discussion. While sexuality is overt and explicit, somehow many people cannot bring themselves to speak clearly and openly about death. I hate euphemisms. Call a spade a spade. Speak of things as they are. Be clear in thought and speech. Birth and death are everyday events: they happen to us all. Birth is generally a source of joy and love, and death is a source of pain, sorrow and grief. Both are real, and don't vanish if ignored.

I like to see what names are given given to or inflicted on innocent babies. As birth notices are often not published in the newspapers as they once were, occasionally I search on line. This week I did so because two nieces had their babies this week. They were given names which to me sound pleasant and normal, quite unlike the crop I discovered on the Internet today -which included Breckin, Trinity Pearl, Minnie Star and Logan Kade.

My sister C, who is the grandmother of these two new baby girls, is the mother of five children, and she now has eight granddaughters and two grandsons. There is another grandchild to come in a few months. I feel quite envious as I don't think there will be any more grandchildren for me. So they tell me. I dote on all my grandchildren, four of whom are boys, and there is only one girl. When she was born, after the first three boys, I was so delighted I cried. I would have liked another granddaughter. (Or another grandson.) Obviously I should have had more children, so as to increase the chances. I expected to have a larger family, and evidently was very fertile. But only half my pregnancies were successful, and I had to plead and argue very strenuously to have my third child. My parents had 23 grandchildren, and to date there are 23 great-grandchildren.

Fertility and reproduction are so intrinsically fascinating. We are hard-wired to become besotted with babies, whether human or animals. Something innate in us realises that having children creates love and tenderness. We can understand the disadvantages and difficulties of having children, but in our innermost souls we know that they bring joy and great emotional satisfaction, and answer our deepest needs.

Look at all the people who flock to the zoo to see the baby elephants. Kittens and puppies enchant most of us. We smile and coo at babies we encounter, and have an urge to soothe an unhappy or fractious baby or small child. When we see a newborn baby, we want, we need to hold and cuddle it, to feel that tiny head and soft snuggly body conform to our bodies, to stroke its back and head, and to drop kisses onto the baby face. There is delight and amazement at every development, the way the baby stops crying (generally) when it is picked up, the way the baby recognises its parents, smiles, laughs, writhes with pleasure in the bath, kicks and rolls over, learns to sit, crawl, stand and walk. Then there is the dawning of intelligence, language and self-expression. Does anyone remember that wonderful sequence in Jacob Broinowski's The Ascent of Man, when the baby rises to its feet and walks? The sense of achievement and the delight in it.

I rather like the old expression for being pregnant - increasing.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Tomorrow I am going to stop procrastinating.

It is funny how long a mental self-image can linger, long after reality has kicked in and demonstrated its inaccuracy. Generally I consider myself to be efficient, well organised, and able to get lots and lots of things done: running the house, doing all the tidying, doing all the washing and ironing, cooking and cleaning up. Once out of bed in the morning, showered and dressed, I check on Dr P and often help with his showering and dressing, and make his bed. Once downstairs, I bring the newspaper in, put the washing on, empty the dishwasher, fix breakfast. All very routine and ordinary, doing things we all do. Then there are the classes and the lectures, the shopping, the appointments. Nothing special. When life ticks over smoothly, all is well.

Once the day is done, I like to enjoy some spare time. To sit and read, and listen to music, and sometimes to watch TV. In the late afternoon, I watch some quiz shows. I am fascinated by what people know and don't know, what they can work out, the gaps in my own knowledge and the things I don't have a clue about (mostly sport and entertainment). I contemplate the change in the nature of general knowledge. I wonder why there are so many questions about the ingredients of various cocktails, or about national flags. And why there is a lot of ignorance about geography, and how few people can work out an answer from knowledge of a language. Watching people make wild guesses is fascinating. Many people know remarkably little history, even to do with their own country.

After dinner, and having cleaned up, we retire to our various corners to amuse ourselves for the rest of the evening. It is our own time. I retire to my little sitting room, where the CD player, computer, couch and books are. It is the time of day to curl up with a book, listen to some music and do things on the computer, to read blogs if I am undisturbed. Precious time, to recharge, to relax, and to let the mind roam. Usually I go to bed late, but find increasingly I should not stay up too late, if I want to get to sleep reasonably easily. Sometimes I get busy, but mostly it is quiet time.

Some days I have an urge to get the house and its contents organised, and to dispose of anything we no longer need or want. We have too much stuff. Dr P has lots of books and journals which he is never going to read again. No one else is likely to want them either. I want to get rid of them, to have the ruthlessness to ditch them all. We both have large numbers of videotapes, which, in the nine years since I moved here, have remained in their boxes, untouched, unused, and likely to remain so. They just take up space, and should go. My own books do get culled, but I keep buying more. They leap out and beg me to buy them.

In a fit of zeal the other day I pulled the couch aside and looked in the drawers behind it. Apart from the many videotapes, I found various files, containing old insurance documents. Most of these went, but I kept various receipts for art works and furniture I bought, just in case there is ever a need to document ownership. Checking these files reminded me of lots that I had forgotten, such as storm damage to my house, and the theft of a camera while I was at a conference. If I had my life over again, I would keep many more letters. Now that our records are on computers and on line, our more recent years are better documented. There is relatively little remaining from my childhood, youth and early adulthood. Some letters, but not many, from my parents survive, but they are so hard to read. All the cards and letters received after the births of my children are still there, and I wish I had copies of the letters I sent to family and friends. When I was first married I wrote to friends and family regularly, but as the children grew, and once I got a job, we used telephones more and wrote less frequently. Years went by without many physical records, until the day of the email dawned, and written communications revived.

From time to time I investigate my stash of fabrics and wools, and wonder what to do with them. A couple of years ago my sewing machine died, and I threw it out. It is not as though I am ever going to do much sewing, but I missed having a machine, and was periodically tempted to get a new one. Recently Target had a sale, and I bought a new sewing machine for half price. It is unpacked and sitting there ready to be tested. It has been there a whole week, but so far is is untouched. There is some old curtain fabric which I will use to test it, and will make a cushion cover or two. Soon.

In the days when I did a lot of crocheting, I bought quite a lot of wool, which has been sitting around ever since. Now that I live in this disgustingly hot and humid climate, the pressing need for mohair shawls and jackets is less. Last year I succumbed to the temptation of a sale and bought some more mohair and made an attractive shawl, and I have enough bright dark blue mohair from years ago to do another one. But how many shawls do I need in this climate?
My pattern collection is quite old, old enough for some of them to come back into fashion. It has been possible to weed the pattern collection and remove some of the really horrid ones.

There are some lovely fabrics, silks, cottons, linens and woollens. The sort of clothes I envisaged having made would probably no longer suit my overwight body, but still a fantasy floats through my mind that one day I might lose some of the weight.

And what about my gardening books? Sydney is full of plants I don't recognise, and the tiny garden is very full already (although I think the awful scorching heat is killing the fuchsia). Maybe one day I might need the books again. Pigs might fly, too, and I might not be fit enough to turn the soil.

Tonight I should be filling in some forms, or reading some instruction manuals for the new phones and clock radio/CD player and iPod bit. Too hard. Instead I have been sitting here typing, deleting and editing. It all takes time. There has been a wild storm, with extremely heavy rain. When I checked downstairs, water was coming through the back door and draining through the laundry floor. I took off my shoes and all my clothes, grabbed an umbrella and went outside to check the drains. In fact they were not blocked, just not coping with the deluge. The storm is over, and all is still.

Tomorrow I will fill in the forms, but now I am treasuring the quietness of the night.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Jury service

A couple of days ago, I was taken to the opera by a friend. We had a very good time, sitting in the very front row, where we could watch the conductor and the orchestra, and see the cast close up. During the interval, we went to a select little lounge where we were plied with wine and sandwiches. We settled down in the chairs to have a good talk about the performance. Then we noticed a person in a uniform, wearing so much gold braid she'd evidently been to Fort Knox. She came and talked to us for a while, during which we noticed a familiar looking face and figure nearby. Yes, it was our Governor General, who, like us, is apparently un'appassionata of opera. She came and talked to us too, so we rose to our feet. She is very very thin.

However, this little snippet is only by way of introduction to what I really want to write about. My friend NH and I met only a few years ago, on jury service, for a murder trial, which lasted almost seven weeks. There is much written about the jury system, but probably relatively little about what it is like to serve on a jury. I read one somewhere, I think by Joanna Mendelssohn, and she was, I think, quite critical of the experience and the conditions.

Hence this post. Our experience was overwhelmingly positive.

The summons for jury service arrived a number of weeks before the date specified, and in fact we had to watch the Law Notices in the newspaper to check for any deferment, which did occur. Because of the possibility that I might be empanelled, I had to ensure that I was available. This meant that I could only make a very quick visit to Melbourne to attend my daughter's 40th birthday party. Nor could I help the family in the rescue endeavour we planned and executed to extract our youngest sister from her awful marriage. While I helped plan it, the escape took place during the trial period. Briefly, the plan was to move my sister and her belongings from the family home (her husband was exerting huge pressure to force her to leave, and it became very evident that he was not going to budge, or act in a manner anywhere near approaching decency) and so we got her out secretly. The extended family got together, hired a removalist, and helped her pack, and get out half an hour before her husband arrived home. We live in exciting times.

Back to the main story. The jury service was a most absorbing and positive experience. Before my summons I did not think I knew many people who had served on juries, but once I spoke of my experience, I heard many other stories, going back many years, often of awful and tragic cases. Some told how women were bullied by male jurors and their views brushed aside. This has evidently changed.

While the numerous people who had been summonsed for jury service that day were still milling around unprocessed, a woman approached me. She had noticed I was filling the shining hour by doing some Italian homework, and recognised me, as she studied Italian at the same institution. She had also found someone else, who actually was Italian. Strangely enough, the three of us were empanelled.

The twelve selected jurors were all very different, but there were quite a few coincidences and similarities, which I would not have expected from a process which was done by selecting numbers from a box. To protect juror privacy and anonymity, each potential juror is given a number and is never identified at any stage by name. The number before mine was called and that person was chosen. I assumed that my number was unlikely to be called, but it was the next number chosen. As was I.

When we all gathered in the jury room, we gradually discovered these coincidences and similarities. Three of us studied Italian at the same institution. Four of us sang in choirs. Two of us had been librarians. Four were not born in Australia. Five were ardent knitters and crocheters. (This, I hasten to add virtuously, we did only in our breaks, or before the day started, but a lot got produced.)

Naturally, being together for so long, we got to know each other reasonably well. I suppose we had all heard horror stories of jurors being bullied, of arguments and fights occurring, of decisions being made before all the evidence had been presented and before both prosecution and defence cases had been given. But I can honestly say that this jury experience was not remotely like that. Everyone worked very hard and co-operatively, politely and without hostility or abuse. Each person brought different abilities, insights and understanding to the work. We reviewed the evidence many times, and were thoroughly familiar with everything. I cannot give any of the details of our deliberations, because this is prohibited.

A murder trial is very serious, and this particular crime was committed in cold blood. The nature of the crime must be borne in mind all during the trial. In the end we were unable to agree on a verdict and were discharged. There were good reasons for our failure to reach agreement. A verdict was reached in a later case, which accorded with my own judgement.

When I say that the experience was absorbing, I mean that we all thought about it both day and night. All the time. It occupied our minds completely, even when we were not in court or in the jury room.

For many of the jurors it was difficult. Some of us were retired, but others were obliged to take time off their jobs, or to squeeze in time after court had finished for the day. The mother of one of the jurors died during the trial. We had to adjust to not being allowed out, and when travelling to and from the court had to ensure that there was no contact with anyone connected with the case, who might be travelling on the same bus or ferry. The court staff were generally very competent, helpful and pleasant, and told us when we were discharged what a good jury we had been - not like some, they added. I have never regretted being on that jury.

The jury pay was lousy. There has been a Law Reform Commission Report into the NSW jury system, which recommended abolition of many of the categories of exemption from jury service, and also increasing the pay. Before this trial there had been instances when some jurors spoke to the media about their verdicts, and jeopardised the process. I think the law relating to confidentiality of the jury process was tightened, and the numbering system was introduced to ensure juror anonymity.

When my children were small I was summonsed for jury service in the ACT. I could have claimed exemption because of the age of the children, but chose to do what I considered to be my civic duty. The case was a murder trial, and a most dreadful and awful case. A woman whose husband had beaten her frequently and brutally for many years finally killed him. Both had been survivors of concentration camps. I was challenged by the prosecution, and I am sure it was because I am a woman. Not enough people had been summonsed to exhaust the rights of challenge, and so everyone was discharged, and a new set of summonses were issued. My next door neighbour was one of them. The woman pleaded guilty, so no trial was necessary, and was remanded for sentencing. Then she attempted suicide. It was very evidently an extremely tragic and difficult case, and my recollection is that the woman was given a suspended sentence. Justice was done, I think. Later revisions were made to the criminal law to allow for weight to be given to a defence on grounds of wife beating and domestic violence.