Saturday, 30 June 2012

I feel bad about my upper lip

Nora Ephron wrote a book called,  I feel bad about my neck.  I came across this title by accident. When I read this week that she had died of leukemia at age 71, I went looking for her autobiographical novel, Heartburn.  Nora wrote my favourite movie of all time, When Harry Met Sally. I watched it again recently and it still holds up.

(For the record, it's never been about the deli scene for me, it's always been about the scene with the wagon wheel coffee table.

Anyway, when I was trying to find an ebook version of Heartburn, I came across the collection of her essays titled, I feel bad about my neck. At first I was confused and thought it might be to do with a neck injury. Then when I read the bit after the colon: "And other thoughts on being a woman." I suddenly got it.

No matter how hard you try to disguise the ageing process, no matter how good you are at the art of 'ageing camouflage,' there are a few body parts that just won't play ball. The neck is one of them. The knees are another. (See Elle Macpherson and Cindy Crawford.)  And I have noticed of late that the part above the upper lip is another giveaway.

If you are unlucky, you start getting lines in the bit above your upper lip. It's like the lines in your lips start leaking into the rest of your face. It's quite distressing. Some women are doing  botox or fillers to rectify this unsightly imperfection.  (See Patty Newton on Celebrity Apprentice.) But that only makes things worse because then they end up looking like they have a duck bill.

No matter which way you look at it, the ageing process is particularly cruel for women.  And the more we try to fight it, the more ridiculous we end up looking. 

But whatever your age, life as a woman is an elaborate game of camouflaging your least favourite body parts.  When I was younger, I was very skinny: Calista Flockhart skinny.  It sounds fun, but it really isn't because people are always gasping in horror and saying, "You should eat something!" Or, "Oh my god! Are you anorexic?"

 But I was just scrawny. I developed a way of dressing that camouflaged how skinny and flat-chested I was: boatneck tops, men's jeans (because I didn't have any hips) and there was alot of blousiness going on; not to hide fat, but to make me look like I could perhaps be bigger under all that blousiness.  You just never knew, I could have had giant boobs under all that voluminous clothing.

When I filmed one of my first video clips as a musician the stylist had to pad me out with three thick long-sleeved tops so that my arms didn't look like Kermit the Frog's. I was quite the freak.

Then I had some kids and things got better... for a while, then a whole lot worse.  Now there are all sorts of things that need to be camouflaged and accounted for: pouffy stomach, ham hocks, upper thighs at the back, knee joints, slip-sliding-down-the-back-of-my-thighs bum, turkey neck, pouchy under-eye bits, that upper lip thing, fatty bits where your bra cuts in under the arms, celery stalk ankles, muffin tops and back fat.

It's really quite exhausting putting an outift together that does the job. Which is why women take so long to get dressed in the morning. There's so much to be covered and to do it without looking like Mama Cass in a coverall kaftan arrangement is a dark and delicate art.

It's like a well-practised magic trick: create a distraction here, to hide what's going on over there.

Whenever I go shopping and have to undress in a changing room, under fluorescent lights and at close quarters with my reflection, it astounds me that men have been known to put secret spy cameras in women's change rooms for their own grubby gratification.  Honestly, what array of fright night do they uncover when they are going through their footage later?  It cannot possibly be alluring. If someone inadvertently caught my undressed image on their Peeping Tom camera I can only say that it would be a fitting  punishment for their crime. ("My eyes! My eyes!")

Sometime last year, one of my good friends sent me an email with the title:
"Oh my god! I'm pregnant!"

When I opened the email, all that was in it was a photograph of my friend in her (until that moment) favourite dress.  It was a smart jersey wrap dress; one that she had always considered made her look quite foxy. Then she saw the photograph; she is standing at a particularly unflattering angle and looks honestly about 5-6 months pregnant.  After she had mentally counted back over all the times she had worn that dress to functions and parties and then felt retrospectively mortified, she sent the photo to me. Purely for my own amusement.

Laugh? Did we ever.

A problem shared is a problem halved indeed.

So RIP Nora. I feel bad about my neck too. (Amongst other things.)

Thursday, 21 June 2012

The friendship cupboard

Recently someone I know, who shall remain nameless, had to put someone SHE knew into the friendship cupboard.  Me and the person I knew, who shall remain nameless, discussed it at length and decided that it wasn't to be a permanent banishment, just six months or so would probably do the trick. After that, the person in question could be released again and perhaps the friendship could resume. It's not a 'freezing out' situation, it's far more subtle than that, it's just a simple putting away and shutting the door for a while.

Female friendships can be tricky. We get close to each other, so we really know how to push each other's buttons. Or sometimes friendships just go out of fashion for a while. Someone you seemed to have so much in common with in high school can suddenly seem irrelevant if your lives take different paths.  But then ten years later, that same friend can come back into fashion when your lives converge again in some way.

 And instead of just 'dropping' an old friend never to be picked up again, the friendship cupboard can be a good way to give things a 'time out.'  Sometimes it's just a month or two. Sometimes it's years.  Sometimes it's a mutual understanding and no one's feelings get hurt. Sometimes not.

About ten years ago, I had to put someone in the friendship cupboard.  It pained me to do so.  She was an extremely warm and engaging person on a good day. But on a bad day, she could just be plain prickly. She had a sharp tongue: it was funny when it was aimed at other people, but no so funny when it came my way. 

We'd been friends since high school and had reconnected over the birth of children. She had her second child around the same time that I had my first.  She was a good sounding board for 'first baby' problems and gave me a lot of much-needed support as I flailed my way clumsily through the first months of becoming someone's mother.

She, let's call her Mabel, because that's not her name,  was funny and smart and we sort of reverted back to our old high school dynamic: she swayed wildly between idolising me one minute and finding me a complete disappointment the next.  Apart from that, I enjoyed her company and so I just kept my distance a bit from her.

One night Mabel invited me and my husband over for a dinner party at her house.  She invited another couple as well:  a girl from high school, someone I didn't know all that well, but was happy enough to catch up with. Let's call that girl Gertrude.
  "Gertrude has got the best singing voice!" Mabel said to me breathlessly over the phone. "She should be an opera singer, seriously, you won't believe it."
"Alright." I said, trying to cast my mind back to high school when I might have seen this nascent opera singing talent first appearing.

Looking back, Mabel may have been trying to put me in the friendship cupboard. Everything about the night seemed designed to repel me.

When we arrived, I was ushered into the piano room to hear Gertrude sing.  Mabel got on the piano and played some very thumpy, two-handed accompaniment while Gertrude showed off her opera quality pipes. 

I don't mind a bit of a sing around the piano, but there's got to be a time limit. I mean, you don't have to sing every verse and chorus of Don't Cry For Me Argentina, if people are standing around politely listening to you.  You give it a verse and a chorus then you finish up.

But Mabel was determined. They finished up on Evita and launched into some Porgy and Bess. All the while, I stood with, what I hoped was a politely interested and not at all put out that no one was asking me to sing, look on my face.

It's hard to put my finger on what it was about this whole exercise that got my back up.  I was two years into motherhood and feeling a bit invisible.  I had made a living out of singing in bands, then had a baby and had not sung professionally for three years. The first few years of motherhood can sort of suck you under.  You lose a part of yourself:  usually the part of yourself that is most tied up in ego and identity - your job, your talent, your special thing that you do that makes you, you.  It's necessary to put this part of yourself aside for a while, but disconcerting all the same.

So I was a bit touchy about the whole having once been a singer thing.

 And why was Mabel showcasing this other person. Wasn't I the singer?  I was very confused by the whole exercise until she said:

"Now you both sing together, see who's got the best voice."

And she pumped out a clunky version of Somewhere, my signature tune from the high school musical.

The most bizarre thing about this whole exercise was that Gertrude and I just complied and started singing against each other.  It was sort of a joke, but sort of not and it has to be said that Gertrude was really giving it some. She was determined to drown me out.

 Mabel was really enjoying it and I think in her head, we were two suitors vying for her friendship.

But the point where I decided to lock Mabel in the friendship cupboard for the better part of a decade was right at the end of the evening.

The night was winding down. People were starting to check their watches and cite babysitters.  Mabel, perhaps sensing we were all about to escape, announced that she had a special performance for us.  Her husband stared straight ahead as if he knew already what was coming but did not want to tip any of us off lest we escape and leave him to suffer it alone.

Mabel disappeared into the living room and all of a sudden Mariah Carey's Hero, blasted through the house at an illegal volume.  Then Mabel appeared in the doorway between the living room and the dining room, lip syncing dramatically.

She was very drunk and it was very funny... for about thirty seconds. Then it just went on and on. And it was very clear that our role as a group, was simply to pay attention to her. What else could we do? The conversation had dried up about half an hour before.

She swept out one set of patio doors and sang to the neighbours for a while, then came back in the other set of doors and sang at us again. At which point her husband got up quickly and locked the doors so she couldn't escape again.

She found another door and swept it open dramatically for the key change, she bowed out into the night again and her husband pushed her back inside. (It seemed a very real concern to him that someone would call the police and make a noise complaint.)

But Mabel was unstoppable. It sounds wild and quirky in the telling. But in the moment, it simply went on for longer than was funny or entertaining. And in truth, she wasn't so drunk that she wouldn't be expected to know better.

It occurred to me then that this was and would always be, my role in this friendship. To just be her audience. To let her do what she did and not question. I decided in that moment, when she went for the key change while we all sat there bored rigid, politely sipping our weak coffee (she made a dreadful cup of coffee, always) that it was time to put Mabel in the friendship cupboard.

It was a moment of pure clarity. I knew that night, as I said, 'bye thanks for a great evening' that I would not be seeing her again for a long time.

I even sent her a postcard a week later, as a final sign off. 

In she went. Into the friendship armoire. She's been in there for over a decade. I'd like to get her out one day, there is still something about her I find irresistible. But not just yet.

 Perhaps five years more for Mabel.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Giving it petrol: lessons in stage craft

When we were kids, my sister and I didn't so much 'put on a show' as stage a series of very avant garde performance pieces in our parents' master bedroom.  The main appeal of the master bedroom was the walk-in wardrobe, which made a good backstage area and so facilitated our most edgy piece  "I'm Scared."

"I'm Scared," was a multi-media performance that involved one or the other of us (we were an interchangeable troupe of actors) playing our flute in a dramatic fluttery way as we emerged from the walk-in wardrobe, crouched Bangarra dancer-style, looking hither and thither like a hunted fugitive. The success of the piece involved a complete commitment to the moment of being scared.

We dabbled in all manner of performance types.  There was a puppetry piece called, "Bwoop Bwoop, It's The Critter," which involved the clever use of a ball of wool with the bobbly ends of knitting needles for eyes.  If you pushed the needles back and forth it looked like the critter's eyes were going, 'bwoop bwoop.' There was a song to go along with it, but it would be lost in translation here.

And our most accessible piece, "Ha ha ha! Everybody's Jolly!"  was a musical extravaganza into which we cast our three year old brother. We dressed him in a leotard and gave him strict instructions not to 'improvise.' He was to perform only the choreographed dance moves assigned to him and to stay in the background.  We made our parents watch it. They were a tough audience and responded with a sort of bemused smattering of applause before checking their watches and going back to the living room to watch the end of, "Murphy Brown."

Over the years I have forged some sort of career in music and performance.  And while none of it was as satirical and edgy as that early work with  my sister, I have learned a thing or two about stage craft. I will share my wisdom now.

Lesson # 1: People have to look at you. Keep yourself nice.

 I learned this lesson early on.  When I was 16, I took part in a small recital put on by my singing teacher.  The recital took place in his teaching room: a small room no larger than most people's bathrooms, on the third floor of the Dymock's Building .  From memory there were about 10 other singing students there.  It wasn't so much the fact that people were looking at me that made me feel awkward, but the fact that they were sitting on plastic chairs about three foot away from me as I wailed out my mournful version of the Negro spiritual "Were You There When They Crucified The Lord."

Also, quite contrary to the fact that I was a skinny underdeveloped 16 year old, I had a very loud singing voice.  I was afraid I might be hurting their ears especially when I hit my dramatic crescendo  on the line:

Whooah- oh -oh-ooooh. Sometimes it causes me to tremble brother tremble

  As a result, I spent my entire performance wringing my hands inside the bottom of my school jumper and looking up at the ceiling. When I'd finished, instead of applause I heard this:

"Oh my God! Stop doing that with your hands, you're making me so uncomfortable!"

A woman in the front row (a mature age student who had sung "Georgia" in a very pretty and self-satisfied  way) was covering her face with her hands.  She stood up then and came toward me and yanked my hands out of the bottom of my jumper. 

"What a lovely voice, but please don't do that with your hands when you sing!"

It occurred to me then that it was more important to make THEM feel comfortable than it was to absorb and deal with my own discomfort.

I never did that again and learned to stand as elegantly as I could with my hands down by my sides and wear something aesthetically pleasing. I also stopped singing Negro spirituals, given that a) I am not a Negress and b) I knew nothing of the terrible suffering that might cause one to wail.

Lesson # 2: Give it petrol. 

This was a difficult lesson to learn given my formative performing years took place on pub stages in the early '90s. It was the fashion then to look down at the carpet and sort of, pretend that you were too cool to want to be there.

 There was alot of grunge going on: alot of pasty boys playing fuzzy electric guitars and singing pretty badly.  It was hard for two girls (who aimed to sing in tune) to know how to pitch themselves.  It was a boys club and we wanted to fit in.  As a result we just stood there singing and strumming. We thought it was going pretty well, this singing and strumming thing until we played a big outdoor festival in Brisbane and a reviewer described our act as:

"... about as exciting as watching paint dry..."

He had a point.  I took it on board. I tried to give it petrol from then on.  I still do. But sometimes I get so relaxed up there I just forget.

Lesson #3. Don't insult your audience.

Again, a difficult lesson to learn on the job.  The year was 1993. I toured the regions supporting Things Of Stone and Wood. They had the biggest hit on radio at the time, a song called, "Happy Birthday Helen." And out in the regions, where men are  men and women are women, it was especially heartwarming to see big boofy country blokes punching their fists in the air as they sang along  footy-chant style to the line:

You are the voice in my heart that whispers compassion!

What wasn't heartwarming was going on every night BEFORE the main act and having people yell out for me to play "Happy Birthday Helen."  It was chronic. It happened every single night. I couldn't fathom it. I understood that they couldn't wait to hear that song. But to request that I play it for them? Surely it would only lead to disappointment. Better to wait for the real band to play that one. But still they persisted. And not just once. Numerous times during my solo acoustic set of girly tunes a voice from the dark would caterwaul hopefully.

"Happy Birthday Helen!"

As if there might just be a chance.

And then when I didn't comply, they would shout out again insistently, as if completely bewildered as to why I wouldn't fulfil their request.

(It's funny what people expect of a girl with a guitar.  I once played a B&S ball out in Windsor. A big empty hay shed smattered with boys in tuxedos and girls in ill-fitting taffeta. Whoever thought it would be a good idea to put me on with my guitar as the opening act, I will never know.  A very drunk girl zig-zagged her way from the back of the room (where everyone was gathered, trying to escape my annoying music) to the stage. As she got closer with the obvious intention of engaging my attention, I tried to ignore her and go to my happy singing place. Finally she stood at my feet,  beckoning wildly to me.  I stopped playing and leaned down to hear what she had to say.
She was so drunk that her eyes were rolling back inside her head looking for her brain.

  "Sczzz me..." She slurred, nearly falling backwards, then righting herself and lurching forwards again, "do you know, 'Lump'?" 
It was a song request.

Again I'm not sure why she thought that me singing her favourite song by the subversive punk grunge band, "Presidents of the USA," would be satisfying.  I told her I didn't know that song. She kept insisting that I knew it and I should play it. Then she tried a few others:

 "Smack my bitch up?"
"Black Hole Sun?"
"Heart shaped box?"
"Listen," I said finally, "I don't know anything that you know. Okay?"
She blinked, lurched backwards and then zig-zagged back across the empty barn to stand with her back to me alongside the rest of the tuexedos and taffeta.   In retrospect, I should have just knocked up a quick Patsy Biscoe-style version of 'Lump' to shut her up. Who knows, it may have set the barn a jumpin'.)

Anyway back on tour with Things of Stone and Wood: town after town, audience after audience, pub gig after pub gig, I would have to play my entire 30 minute support set with people yelling out intermittently for 'Happy Birthday Helen.' 

They weren't heckling, they were genuinely requesting that I play their favourite song. Even when Things of Stone and Wood finally played it, towards the end of their set, the audience was not sated. They would keep piping up throughout two encores of other songs, with requests for the band to sing that song again.

One night, before I'd even strummed a chord, a girl in the third row, called out for it.
"Are you stupid?" I said.  "Obviously I don't play that song."
The audience then became one seething mass of hatred.  All directed towards me. An audience is a frightening beast that can turn on a dime.
"Ooooooooh." They hummed in unison.

"Up yerself bitch!"
"Get off!"

I did get off. About 10 minutes later. I exited stage left to a roar of abuse.

An audience is like a savage beast: best not to poke it with a stick.

Lesson #4. When things go wrong on stage, just keep smiling.

I used to do my 'nana.  I couldn't hack it when things went wrong: leads buzzing, guitar strings breaking, foldback cutting out, speakers popping. I'd lose it.  It didn't help. It just made everyone uneasy. The audience reared back never to be reeled back in again.

I have since learned to just keep smiling. I have become a master of playing the wrong chord and just keeping on singing.  I have played entire chord sequences out of order and not batted and eyelid. It's quite a skill.

I have played with a loud static roar of broken speaker blaring up at me from the foldback and just given it petrol like I was loving myself sick.  

I have sung entire songs in the wrong key and like a train on a track, I just keep going. If you do it with confidence, people just think it's jazz.

Lesson #5. Don't lay a log on stage.

The transition from singer-songwriter to opening act for a comedian is a little bumpy.  If you are a  singer/songwriter, everyone wants to see your pain.  They want you to open up your rib cage and show your angsty little heart. As Seal would say, "They want you to show your vulnerability."

A comedy audience however views weakness in much the same way as a mummy mouse does: they just want to eat you so that you will no longer exist and therefore cease to make them uncomfortable. 

Last year, in Rockhampton, my sister and I decided to change things up. I'd been opening her comedy show with the same jaunty song for 12 months. We thought it might be interesting if I sang a different song that night.

"What about that train song?" Said my sister, who doesn't understand lyrics at all.
"The train song?"
"You know she's waiting for the train and saying goodbye to the buildings." 
"Ah, Patty." I said, happy to be able to give my favourite angsty tune an airing.

 So that night in Rockhampton, I sang Patty Griffin's "Useless Desires," which I'd always thought to be about Patty leaving a relationship and saying goodbye in a 'girl power I don't need men' sort of way. 

However on stage that night, about halfway through the song,  it suddenly dawned on me - as Patty said, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, to everything including birds and buildings  -  that she was saying goodbye in the forever sense. I then made the connection to the last verse where she goes down to the railway tracks and waits for the train. I'd always thought she was waiting to get on the train.

It occurred to me then, that I could be bringing everyone down with my 'ode to suicide on the railway tracks.' My voice cracked mid-note. I looked down into the front row and saw some extremely bored and fed-up looking people.

I lost my nerve. I began to ooze fear.

The audience caught a whiff of it and began immediately to despise me. 

The three minute song seemed to go for an eternity and when  I finally exited stage-left, the lacklustre applause stopped before I'd reached the wings.

My sister then came on, sensed the mood and fed on it herself by doing some very unfunny versions of her previously (in every other town we'd been to)  funny jokes.

We now refer to it as 'the night we laid a log on the stage at Rockhampton.'

Perhaps a rendition of "I'm scared,"  may have been more apt.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Women in bikinis and heels, piss off!

Susie Maroney has had yet another mummy makeover.  If you don't know what a mummy makeover is, here are the basic elements of a 'mummy makeover' photo shoot. 

- a bikini
- a pair of high heels
- a baby held close to your fab new bikini body to give the impression that you lost the weight simply by lifting and holding and nurturing your new baby.

Piss off!

While I applaud women who can lose weight after they've had a baby or two (seriously, who doesn't chub up when they have babies?  It's just part of the deal: have a baby, chub up) I just don't see why women need to pose on the cover of magazines in a bikini AND high heels after they lose their 'baby weight.' (Or at all, for that matter. Put some clothes on you crazy bikini kooks!)

It's like they think no one will believe that they are no longer a big old mummy chubster.  They have to prove that they are thin again by stripping off all their clothes and standing there in the equivalent of their underwear.

 But it's not so much the bikini, as the high heels that makes me feel nauseous with 'back to the 1950s' whiplash. 

 I know they're doing it to make their legs look longer so their post-baby bod looks bangin' hot and that's 'woman power' or something.  But when I see those photos I just think, "Why is she wearing heels with her bikini?" Bikinis go with bare feet. Unless you are in a beauty pageant. Which brings me to my point.

Bikinis go with bare feet (or thongs if the sand is hot) unless you are in a beauty pageant! 

I thought we all sort of agreed that beauty pageants are just dumb.  It's not a right-on feminist thing, it's just a common sense sort of thing. Why do grown women have to parade across a stage in their bikinis and high heels in the pursuit of a tiara and a wand? It's just really, really dumb. And I don't care how much they raise for charity, they are dumb for being in the beauty pageant.

And you can try and convince me that they're all really smart business women, up there in their gowns and bikinis and five inch-thick makeup and Vaseline on their front teeth.  But if they're so smart, why are they in a competition where the winner is the person who looks best in a bikini and heels? If they're smart, they should be in a competition where the winner is the person who invented a fossil-fuel-free car.

Furthermore, bikinis do not go with having had two more more children.  It's just a fact. So if you want to prance around on dry land in a string bikini after you've had your kids, I can only say this to you:

Piss off!

(That means you, Elle Macpherson.)

Monday, 4 June 2012

My sister's furry children

My sister has two furry children. Their names are Henry and Sarge.  You might be asking yourself, "What does she mean by 'furry?' Do they have some sort of overactive hair gene or something?"

Which, if you've seen my sister, is entirely possible. (Nickname: "Wiggy.")

However the answer to your question (assuming you asked it) is: they are a dog and a cat.  She likes to run a tight ship, so her animals are very well trained. Henry even does tricks. His cleverest trick is to 'find Sarge.'

When she says, "Where's Sarge?" he goes up and bats the cat with his paw.  It's very entertaining and the cat is extremely tolerant. Although Sarge gets his own back later, by swatting Henry with his claw when he is innocently passing by (no command needed.)

 Watch the video to see Henry's tricks.