Thursday 28 July 2022

Letter to my unfulfilled idea

This week, I was invited to speak at the In Your Dreams: Letters Aloud salon. In these monthly events, being run by Pirate and Queen, five people are asked to write a letter and read it aloud for the first time in front of a live audience. For the July event, the theme was Letter to my Unfulfilled Idea.

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Years and years ago, I was acquainted with the idea of a “manager’s manual” – a guide for your new staff on how to operate you, their new boss. I took on this idea, and one of the statements in my manager’s manual is: I am an ideas fountain. 

My 30s seemed to be a particularly rich period for generating ideas. 
I went through a stage of riffing on a range of condiments enriched with alcohol, which I never pursued: peanut butter and rum, cheese whizz and tequila. 

There was a time there where I was promoting the idea of a week-later newspaper: a newspaper that re-presented stories from the previous week, edited down the ones that had turned out to actually be important. 
I invented a product where you could upload your Powerpoint file to an online provider, who would turn them into analogue 35 mil slides, and send them back to you with a slide carousel, so you could give pretentious illustrated lectures. 

Then there was that period when everyone was doing "My year of X, Y, Z". You remember - you set yourself a daily task or development challenge, blogged it, then turned your blog into a book and the book into a speaking career, fame and glory. In that period, I had the idea I'd spend a year training as an adult gymnast. That idea definitely remains unfulfilled. 

And my best, worst, unrealised idea: a service where your order personalised statement condoms. You go online, design your condom logo - days of the week, happy 21st, be my Valentine - and get the printed item delivered to your door. I never took that idea anywhere, and deservedly so. 

On the other hand, I have some ideas from that period that I'm still very fond of. The Museum of Emotions is one of these. 

It was inspired by my job, and my life, and a poem titled 'William and Cynthia' by Charles Simic: 

Says she'll take him to the Museum 
of Dead Ideas and Emotions. 
Wonders that he hasn't been there yet. 
Says it looks like a Federal courthouse 
With its many steps and massive columns. 

 Apparently not many people go there 
On such drizzly gray afternoons. 
Says even she gets afraid 
In the large exhibition halls 
With monstrous ideas in glass cases, 
Naked emotions on stone pedestals 
In classically provocative poses. 

 I had been thinking at that time about how the English language felt impoverished. How we had a dwindling number of words for love, for friendship, for our feelings. How words have become watered down over time - words like melancholy or chivalry once had entire schools of thought built around them, rather than meaning ‘a bit depressed’ or ‘holds doors open for women’. And how when our language is impoverished, our ability to describe or share or face our emotions is likewise diminished.
The Museum of Emotions was not about collections, civic pride, or community involvement. It would be a place that you could go to, to experience emotions that have fallen into disuse, emotions that are foreign to your everyday life, or emotions that have not been part of your life yet. 

It’s not a place to learn about emotions. It’s a place to feel them

I had a conversation at the time with a friend about my idea. He talked about a museum where you programmed exhibitions and performances explicitly designed to elicit emotional responses. I talked about a room that you went into where someone would radiate an emotion towards you, like perfume rising off warm skin. Where you could, as the kids came to say a little while later, catch feelings

Say you'd never had a broken heart. Say you'd never held a baby you'd given birth to. Say you'd never gambled a pay cheque away. Say you'd never punched your bully. Say you've never cheated. Or been cheated on. Say you'd never lost a job. Or an election. Or a parent. Say you could go somewhere, and try those feelings on for size. Say that’s a Museum of Emotions 

Let's go back to Simic’s first line: Says she'll take him to the Museum / of Dead Ideas and Emotions. 

I never noticed that 'dead ideas' bit until last Friday, when I sat down to write this letter. I had always focused on the emotions. 

This idea might be unfulfilled, but it's far from dead. It's more like its simmering on a back element in my brain, a pork bone in a stock pot, flavouring my thinking. It was originally presented in a conference keynote lecture. It lives on in a couple of blog posts I wrote at the time. I occasionally go back and visit those posts, just to remind my idea that I still care about it. This last week, I’ve brought it forth, and played with it some more. 

So let's not say "unfulfilled" ideas. Let's say: still cooking.

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My letter was a challenge I set for myself in trying to write something good, without reaching for easy emotions (a crutch I lean on too readily when trying to connect with audiences). In the (very, very good) Q&A after the event, run by organiser and impresario Claire Mabey, I got into a lot more of the background behind this piece of writing:

I wrote up that powerpoint / slide carousel idea in November 2012. A lot of my thinking that year was shaped by things like the digital/analogue flip-flop (eg via Dan Catt) and experiments like Berg's Little Printer.

The Museum of Emotions was written towards the end of 2012 too. That was the year my husband died. I was stripped bare that year. Art meant something very different to me. The Museum of Emotions was especially inspired by a particular visit to Michael Parekowhai's On first looking into Chapman's Homer.  

The Museum of Emotions was a small part of a keynote talk given in late 2012 at the National Digital Forum conference, titled Going back to Gallery Land

Here's the final stanza of that Charles Simic poem

Says she doesn't understand why he claims
All that reminds him of a country fair.
Admits there's a lot of old dust
And the daylight is the color of sepia,
Just like this picture postcard
With its two lovers chastely embracing
Against a painted cardboard sunset.

The next Letters Aloud event is on 31 August, is on the theme 'Letter to the Future' and features Karlya Smith, Clementine Ford, Paddy Gower, Emily Writes, and Anthonie Tonin.

Anna Rawhiti-Connell was part of the first Letters Aloud event, 'Letter to my Biggest Failure'. Her letter about not becoming a parent is published on The Spinoff, who are partners in the series (thanks for the tote team :)

Thursday 21 July 2022

Finding your audience

I felt really vulnerable starting my blog up again.

Now I realise I needn't of worried. No-one's going to read it. Unless I make them.

I started blogging in December 2006. Fun fact: I registered my blogspot account because I wanted to leave a comment on another blogspot site, Jim and Mary Barr's Over the net (2006-2016). Over the net - Best of 3. It was a table-tennis reference; one that I've lived with now for 16 years. 

Once I had the blog, I used it as a way of documenting all the internetty things I was learning about, as the newly crowned Web Editor at the National Library of New Zealand.  It was auto-didactic: I was self-training, I was practicing, and I was self-consciously surfing the breaking wave of Web 2.0.

My first post was on Tomma Abts winning the Turner Prize. Don't know why - probably, that was the big international art news that day. I think I was practicing making text into links? The formatting is all fucked up, but I think it's important to leave it that way. Posterity and all that.

In that first month I drew attention to other NZ art blogs, like Peter Peryer (miss you, Peter, online and IRL). You can see me there following the web writing precepts I'd been taught: break links out on a new line, tell readers where you are sending them. No rickrolling just yet.

I also shared the things I was learning about. Like posting about social tagging. That entry references Remember that? was a social tagging website - a place where you described and shared links, like a public folder of your best photocopied articles. Personally, I became a Ma.gnolia user and also fooled around with Stumbleupon. Web content was so precious that we turned cataloguing it into a social activity.

This was the time when the big search engines released the year's top search terms at Christmas time. When people wrote rules for corporate blogging (we wrote so many rules during this period). When Time's Person of the Year was - us. I posted about my desire to attend a [Tim] O'Reilly conference. 

God we were nerds.

Anyway. My point. In 2006 you could start a blog, and it would be a rare enough beast that people would read it. In fact, I posted about how Technorati searched 29.6 million blogs and less than one in a million was a museum blog. People read what I posted. Me and the small number of other NZ art bloggers linked to each other, and developed and shared a readership. 

For years, my blog had one foot in the web world and one in the art world, and hung out a lot where the two converged. I was also one of the OG bloggers at NLNZ, where we wrote our hopes and dreams into the LibraryTech blog.  I've just discovered they ported that content over into the current site, and  you can still find my old posts with this utterly endearing bio statement:

There's actually a post on that site that shows how blogs slid into the emerging social media world. It's about one of the "tbreaktweets" we sent from the Library's Twitter account (set up on Jan 2009, first in thank you very much). Tbreaktweets was me and my friend Chelsea; we sent out tweets linking to stuff we loved in the collections twice a day, when our middle-aged colleagues headed off to the pyramid (the Library's then-staff kitchen) for morning and afternoon tea. The blog post was about how a PapersPast article about a hyponotised lobster that we tweeted got picked up by BoingBoing and went viral. 

[Remind me sometime to tell you about running the NLNZ blog when we did the 2008 web harvest and received death threats from enraged sysadmins. Good times.]

Like most people who spend a lot of time online, I've flirted with a bunch of platforms, some that have been long-lived, many that haven't. I've created reams of content and lost them to the ether . Through it all, I've kept this blog. It's a treasure trove for me, of talks and magazine articles and radio appearances that I have faithfully archived here. It's also, inadvertently, a kind of unedited memoir, hundreds of diary entries that might not be about me but are from me

I've come back to the blog this winter. It pretty much went on hiatus when I started at Te Papa in 2018, and went fully quiescent when I became Tumu Whakarae at the start of 2020. 

Partly this was because blogging (where I have always been deliberately candid) felt too risky. Partly it was because in this role I communicate all the time but don't often have time to think of new things. And partly was just that I was on a massive learning curve and had no spare puff for it.

Now I do have mental space - but I'm not sure I have an audience.

A friend DM'd me about my re-emergence:
I have very mixed feelings about the idea of public writing again. I don't know if I feel more vulnerable about it now or if I'm just less willing to tolerate the anxiety it always produced. Maybe it's also that the conversations I'm able to have in the classroom can stand in for some of the kind of responsiveness I used to get when writing/podcasting. But I have lots of things I am thinking about now, so it would be nice to find a space for them.

And I wrote back:

The thing I've found funny about it is that your "audience" is so fragmented now. I've found that in order to bring something to people, I'm sharing it over a plethora of platforms. Which makes me feel so attention-seeking! But then I figure if you're publishing, you want it to be read, so you might as well put that last little extra bit of effort in. 

The first long form piece I wrote in this comeback, on career cycles and trajectories, I shared on Twitter (4621 followers), LinkedIn (over 500 connections), and via the weekly pānui I write to all staff at Te Papa (this week, that email list has 614 addresses). It's had nearly 1100 views.

The second was a reflection on Kate Camp's memoir, You probably think this song is about you. That one I tweeted, and shared via email with a couple of non-social media users. And (having talked to Duncan Greive about it on The Fold recently and simply remembered that I had it) I revived my Tiny Letter and sent it out there too. On my blog it's had 164 hits; on Tiny Letter it went out to 195 subscribers, and I've had about 10 sign ups since then. Tiny Letter seems to reach people who have abandoned Twitter; no-one, it seems, just visits blogs any more.   

I don't know how to feel about those stats. I write to be read, after all: I'm making an effort to be seen (shouty as that seems at times). I have the luxury of wanting an audience but not needing it (I've listened to a lot of Duncan's interviews with Substack writers, after all).

So, is this a lament for the wide-open spaces and close communities of the pre-2010 internet? Not really. I'm more just curious about how my own publishing history has changed, as a online content creator now for more than 15 years. I've been publishing online, about my work and my life, for almost my whole working life. I've experimented with loads of platforms, and usually I've followed or found a community on them (the absolute nicest was probably that intense few years of reviewing on Goodreads). I am nostalgic for peak-blog (and Google Reader - miss you mate). But you can't lament change. Instead, you just keep writing about it. 

Sunday 17 July 2022

On Kate Camp's 'You probably think this song is about you'

[Note - all text in quotes comes from Kate's book]

Kate Camp - Wellingtonian, poet, comms professional - has just released her memoir, You probably think this song is about you, through Te Herenga Waka University Press. I read it all in one go yesterday.

In her interview yesterday with Kim Hill, Kate talked about the process of writing the book: of selecting a topic, and then writing and writing and writing until she hit the nugget. Then starting from that nugget, and writing all the way back.

The memoir could be classed as a story of growing up female, from 1972 to now. It moves between  personal nostalgia (the close cataloguing of the contents and smells of her grandparents' home in Hastings; school assembly song choices), coming of age drama (drinking, smoking, sex), revelations of the kind we have become familiar with in women's writing (fertility battles, the small casual cruelties of childlessness) and revelations few would ever be frank enough to admit (a chapter on wetting herself, as child and adult). Threaded through this are long-running storylines: a long-term relationship characterised by addiction and abuse; the suicide of a close friend; a loving family;  an abundance of close shaves and second chances.  

Kate and I work together - she's the Head of Marketing and Communications at Te Papa. I have only known her since I joined Te Papa, so many of the aspects and history of Kate that come through the memoir are, to me, just that, history. The memoir largely cuts off before the time I met her, and the smoke-soaked Kate of the book is understandable, but not quite familiar. She reminds me a lot, actually, of my older cousin Kim, who would be Kate's senior by a couple of years: another over-achieving uni drop-out, another Greenpeace canvasser, a head girl gone rogue, a pot smoker with lung-choked gurgle of a laugh, a wry accepter of everybody's foibles and flaws

Aspects of the book horrify me - in the sense of a horror movie, of watching circumstances mount up in such a way that you just know how they will play out. A young teen who can dress up in her mum's clothes and blag her way into Courtenay Place pubs. A young teen who's hanging out a 41-year-old pot-dealer's house. A young teen who doesn't value her body or her beauty, trading them off for the things she wants, which become the things she needs. A teen who enters into an abusive relationship and then stays there, a teen who bad things are happening to and who's being bad herself, being the baddest version of herself. A kid who can even then apply what I know of Kate today, the relentless logic of risk-management and a superhuman ability to manage a situation through to an acceptable conclusion:

I spent ten years of my teens and twenties with an one-again-off-again boyfriend, and we used to fight like that all the time. I remember our downstairs neighbour saying to me one time, When I hear you guys fight, and I can hear things smashing and breaking, and I hear you screaming, when should I call the police? And I didn't skip a beat, didn't think, I wonder if that's a rhetorical question. I just said, I'll call out to you. If I ever call your name, go straight next door and call the cops. He didn't have a phone.

The thing I find remarkable about the book - knowing Kate well, but not to the point of intimacy - is that while she has learned and been taught to be compassionate with herself, she does not let herself off the hook. There is an honesty that is not seeking approbation or thrills: it has just been tracked down, drawn forth, and written to the point of inevitability.

Even though it's the truth, it feels unfair and somehow cheap for me to write about Jimi's anger, his violence. It's like playing a card that changes the meaning of everything, makes it black-and-white. And it wasn't like that. I did so many things in that relationship that I'm ashamed of. I lied and stole and cheated, and I was cruel, and most of all I'm ashamed of how I used him, of how, over those ten years, I went back time and time again, always for the same reason. He said to me once I don't think you really want to have sex with me, you're just trading sex for intimacy. And I thought No, I'm trading sex for drugs and intimacy

I'm familiar with that card. For me, it's my widowhood - ten years old this year. "My first husband died. He killed himself." It's a statement that absolves me of all responsibility. I'm not at all responsible. And yet, of course, I am.

Another point of similarity is that we're both under-reactors:  

The fertility doctor had been asking me if I'd been feeling any side-effects from the hormones, any breast tenderness, night sweats, strange emotions, and I'd been happy to report I hadn't felt a thing. Now I was coming to realise that was a bad thing, my body's stoic insensibility. I was under-reacting, just like I always did. 

Some of this is having thick natural buffers, a capacity to keep your head while others, etc. Part of it (for myself) is what I  think of as burnt-off emotional nerve-endings, meaning I spend a lot of time observing my emotions rather than feeling them. There's a bit of Scottish parsimoniousness (even though emotions are free), of it not being worth the effort, and some distaste for making a fuss, being a mess. At 12 or 14 I can remember trying to get a good crying jag up over some teenage injustice, standing in front of the mirror to watch myself sob, and giving up because I just wasn't that into it. Two men have left me (one to suicide, one to another woman), because, they said, in their different ways, I know you'll cope. Which is another way of saying I know you won't make this hard for me.

Kate writes about  going to a doctor for abdominal pain, and being told there's a chance she has ovarian cancer:

At some point he said that I was very calm, and I remember thinking, I don't really see what the alternative is, were there patients who would burst into tears or shriek No no no or say well that's just fucking brilliant isn't it. I said something like Well there's not much point getting upset at this stage. I had a therapist at this time - she was a Scandinavian of some kind - and I remember her saying to me once, in her northern European accent, I find it interesting that you say there is 'no point' in feeling a certain way. Do you believe that emotions should serve a utilitarian purpose? It was the kind of annoying question you pay good money for.

Many many years ago I watched a tv series called something like Child of Our Times. It was probably a turn of the millennium thing. In it, a jovial child development expert tracked the progress of a group of kids all born at the same time.

One episode has never left me. The kids would've been about four. They were testing the kids' ability to recognise and describe emotions. They set up a test where the kids listened to a taped recording of a voice actor reading recipes, in Italian, with exaggerated emotion in her voice: great sadness, great happiness, great fear. The kids were given printed sheets of cartoon faces to hold up, matching the smiley or crying face to the emotion in the recording.

The kids by and large did fairly well, but one child - a little blonde girl - failed spectacularly. She kept holding up the smiley face whenever the voice actor's rendition ached with sadness. And this was odd because this kid was preternaturally attuned, an old soul. Her family was under some form of stress (perhaps the parents were on the fringe of breaking up?) and she shuttled around, settling things down. So the jovial child development expert delved in, and asked her about the face/voice mis-match. And she said It's important people think you're happy, even when you're sad. The tenderness, sadness and self-recognition I felt in that moment still haunt me.

Kate writes:

I have always observed but am still surprised by the fact that, when you pretend to be OK, most people think you are. You're expecting at least some of them to see through you, but they almost never do.

I have a recurring dream that I am being held hostage, or in some dangerous situation, some threatening men are there who I know mean me harm, Whatever the situation, I know instinctively that the only way to survive is to pretend I don't know they are a threat. I need to behave as if everything is fine, while calculating my escape. In one version of the dream, I am lying in bed with an intruder next to me, crouched by my face; I pretend I think he's a family member and tell him, groggily, that I'm asleep. In another I'm being held in a compound, but I walk around with my captors, politely commenting on the landscaping, while secretly looking for a way out. The dreams never resolve one way or another, but the sense on waking is of the enormous pressure of knowing your safety depends on cheerfulness, on your ability to convince others that you are blithely unaware of danger. I know my sister has the same dream sometimes.

In her acknowledgements, Kate talks about her dad's reaction to the book. Her dad loves her: both her parents do, and she them, and the largely untroubled nature of that loving is one of the things that balance out the horror movie bits. But he's upset that the book focuses on all the bruises on the apple of Kate's life, and doesn't reflect its shine: her happy marriage, her successful career, her publishing record, her literary fame, her solidity in the world. Why is she painting herself in such an unflattering light?

There's a passage in the book that sums up for me the wisdom of Kate Camp. In her interview with Kim Hill, Kate passingly references a "not very startling self-realisation of the Covid era", and this is one of these. It's not a unique realisation but you just  know she has lived in, in a thousand humdrum moments that may well make her wince to recall, but that are irresistible because when she writes them down, they make a hell of a good story:

When you think about rock bottom, it sounds like a one-time thing, but in my experience it's a place you end up going to over and over. If you're lucky, you learn something each time you visit. 

Thursday 7 July 2022

Link roundup

A quick reocmmendation to kick things off - Maureen Lander has started digitising and sharing her archive on Instagram - follow maureenlanderarchive for so much wonderful goodness

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Learning to Minister, and a crucial skillIn this RNZ story Phil Smith interviews Kieran McAnulty about the rapid shift from backbench MP to Minister: 

You might imagine incoming ministers get lots of warning, to study and gird their loins. They don’t. 

If that had been the case Kieran McAnulty wouldn’t have chosen that week to move house. 

 Kieran McAnulty is now minister for Emergency Management, for Racing, the Deputy Leader of the House and Associate Minister of both Local Government and Transport. Associate Ministers generally get specific roles inside the wider portfolio. 

That’s like taking on five new jobs at once. But it’s more than that, it’s a change from effectively working for Parliament to working for the Government. 

As Smith analyses it, one of the major differences is the new expectations of Question Time in Parliament, where the Minister is judged not only on content, but performance and delivery: 

 A minister might be brilliant at policy development, at management, delegating and overseeing multiple projects and multiple departments, and at getting money approved …but public perception will determine they are failing if they get monstered at Question Time. 

 It’s a strange way to mark success because Question Time’s interactions aren’t particularly ‘real’. Instead Question Time is a kind of theatre and doing it well involves a degree of performance, but not all MPs are naturals at that. 

Smith follows this up with an interview with Chris Hipkins on how to survive question time.

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From my friend and Tāwhiri / Aotearoa NZ Arts Festival CE Meg Williams, Sober reality - on three years of not drinking. Shared partly for Meg's insight and generosity, but also because it refers to one of my pet topics, the DOPE bird personality test.

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Athol McCredie and Jane Harris at work did a beautiful job of pulling together a full tribute to Luit Bieringa for the Te Papa blog. Scroll all the way through for the final pic of Luit and John McCormack back in the day in shorts with icecreams. 

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There's a strong tendency with arts (and other) organisations to focus on CEs and senior leadership, and not the boards that put them in place. This Sydney Morning Herald article about Australia's incoming arts minister Tony Burke is fascinating because he sheets home responsibility to the previous administration for "lazy and indulgent" appointments. 

* * * * *

Shared by Nicola Gaston on Twitter - an interview with James Poskett, author of Horizons: A global history of science. Poskett notes the tendency to tell the history of science as a series of breakthroughs by (largely) white Western males, and dismiss the continued histories of science in other cultures:

We’re at a kind of crossroads in history, but also in science. And the narratives that scientists were taught and told themselves in the West was a narrative that was built for the Cold War. But the Cold War’s over — the original one. Yet we’re still telling these narratives about Western science, science being neutral. And I think a lot of public mistrust in the sciences generally is actually a function of this — that we need to present publicly a more realistic, political, diverse account of how science is done – how we got to now — in order to have the consent and engagement of the mass public in the sciences.

* * * * *

Also on science, also quite possibly shared by Nicola - a long and fascinating and quite worrying (in that oh-shit-there-goes-another-set-of-assumptions-I-was-comfy-with) Guardian article by Stephen Buranyi, Do we need a new theory of evolution?