Category Archives: Popular culture

PopCAANZ 2017

The call for abstracts for the 2017 iteration of the annual conference for the Popular Culture Association of Australia and New Zealand (PopCAANZ) is closing soon.

If you have an interest in popular culture, presentations are called for in areas as varied as Life Writing, Toys and Games, Disability, Gothic and Horror, Comics, Science and more. There really is something for everybody–and shapeshifters have popped up in Gothic, TV, Comics and Film areas.

This year’s conference will be held in Wellington in late June, and 150-word abstracts are being accepted up until March 31, so get writing!

Popcaanz


Things You Said: Talking Pop Culture with Rob Thomas

So, we’ve established that I’ve got a wee bit of a soft spot for Rob Thomas.  This is not a new thing – my love affair with the music of Rob Thomas and Matchbox 20 has been going slightly longer than the one with my husband. I’ve long joked with people who react with disbelief to learning that I named my only son after him, “well, it’s not like they’re ever going to meet.”

Except that last Friday night, they did.

With massive thanks to Live Nation, I scored complimentary tickets to the State Theatre show, along with a hyperventilation-causing meet’n’greet opportunity. You had to share your favourite Rob Thomas story to win, so I told the story of my boy’s name, and won–which also made it pretty easy to decide who got the other ticket.

winning entry

The other competition winners were lovely people, and the excitement was palpable. We had to wait in the tiniest corridor you’ve ever seen, and Rob was supposed to walk straight past us. Except he didn’t: he stopped and said hi to the lucky few waiting to meet him. We were then led in two-by-two. I went to shake hands, hoping that was allowed. Rob Thomas put out his arms and gestured for a hug. It would have been rude not to respond.

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And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how it took approximately two seconds to transform the self-diagnosed Aspie with clinically-diagnosed anxiety from someone who was afraid of throwing up or passing out in front of an idol, into the relaxed, smiling person chatting in the photos below.

IMG_4378

Look at me, making small talk! With a famous person!

Rob Thomas (the musician) then extended his hand to my son and said, “Hi. Rob” (We both resisted the urge to say, “I know.”). My son replied in kind, also extending his hand and saying, “Hi. Rob,” and then Rob Thomas the musician looked at me in confusion and Rob Thomas (aged 14) and I both said, “Rob Thomas” in unison. And then Rob Thomas (musician) got really excited, and said he’d only ever met one other Rob Thomas (the TV guy). (I think he missed the bit about these being the boy-oh’s given names, but the conversation moved into interesting territory pretty quickly, and it probably meant I didn’t seem quite so stalker-ish as I otherwise might have).

IMG_4365

Wait, you named him WHAT?

So suddenly we’re on solid ground, because Rob Thomas (the TV guy) is something of a pop culture icon. He’s the man behind Veronica Mars, which was discussed at great length at our school reunion (I’ll watch it soon, Phoopie, I promise!), as well as the reboot of 90210, which Roslyn and I will be looking at in some detail in our next book, Mental Health on TV: Representation and Reality.

And then, Rob Thomas (the musician) starts talking zombies. Because Rob Thomas (TV guy) is now running iZombie  on the CW (the network that is also home to  The Vampire Diaries).

iZombie-Season-2-Trailer

And Rob Thomas (musician) and Rob Thomas (TV guy) became friends on Twitter over their shared name, and now Rob Thomas (musician) is going to have his brain eaten in an episode of iZombie when he returns to the States. So watch out, folks, we may be about to see another sexy zombie soon.

So after that little bit of excitement (my son took charge of retrieving my iPhone and our signed photos from the lovely staff, because, in his words, “I knew how you’d be”), we used our complimentary tickets (thanks again, Live Nation!) and headed into the iconic State Theatre for what was billed as “an intimate audience with Rob Thomas.”

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Now, I admit I was a bit overwhelmed by this whole experience, and maybe that explains how I had missed the point that the State Theatre concert was going to be markedly different from the arena-spectacular-esque Melbourne version at RLA a few days earlier. This turned out to be a pretty good thing. I feel incredibly blessed to have seen both “versions” of #theGreatUnknownAussie16  tour.

The RLA performance was high energy, and two of the highlights–David Bowie’s Let’s Dance and Rob running through the crowd in the closing minutes–were not really able to be replicated in this stripped back show, where Thomas was backed only by long-term collaborator Matt Beck, and guitarist Frankie Romano. No thumping drum beats here, which is probably one of Mr 14’s favourite things, but instead we got stories behind the songwriting process, which is definitely one of mine.

Oh, and Rob Thomas played Little Wonders. I’ve actually seen “my” song played live, and it was awesome, and I don’t even mind that it was inspired by what is probably the most mundane part of pet ownership. 😉

All in all, this was a fantastic evening and an experience I’ll remember  ’til they’re blaring Little Wonders over my casket.

 

UPDATE: Apparently TV Insider “broke the news” of Rob Thomas’ iZombie appearance on March 4 (which is March 5 for us, because as Charles M Schultz once reportedly said: Don’t worry about whether tomorrow will come. In Australia, it’s already there.

You read it here on Shapeshifters in Popular Culture, first.

 

 

 

 

 


Give Me the Meltdown: Rob Thomas’ Controversial Melbourne Comments

Many years ago, I was a young, beginning teacher with very little discretionary income, yet still I shelled out for a CD called Yourself or Someone Like You by Matchbox 20. To give you an idea, that album and Live’s Throwing Copper were what my teenage students at Mulwaree High and I bonded over –but ‘my’ copy of Throwing Copper began life in my brother’s collection and may or may not have mysteriously travelled to Goulburn with me when I moved out. (Sorry, Justin).yourself

I’ve loved every album from MB20 and also from their frontman, Rob Thomas. I have the INXS track where he sang lead; his Christmas single, and his track from the Meet the Robinsons soundtrack, Little Wonders (more on that later). You could say I’m a bit of a fan.

Rob-Thomas-Atlantic-2

There was a track on Yourself or Someone Like You that always resonated for me: Real World. I love it. I do wish the Real World would stop bothering me. As someone who is an overthinker, it doesn’t happen often. But most of all, I loved the line, “I wonder what it’s like to be the head honcho.” Not because I do–leadership is not something to which I particularly aspire–but because my tiny, erratic, loud Scottish grandfather used the phrase. A lot. He would ring the phone company, or the electricity company, or the local K-Mart, and bark down the phone in his inimitable and almost incomprehensible accent to whatever hapless person answered, “I want to speak to the Head Honcho.”

So, in November 2000 when my Grandpa, Tom, was in hospital for the last time, I was staying at his house when a competition came on the TV. Ring up, answer one simple question, and you could win two tickets to see MB20 in Wollongong, they said. The question was, “Name the frontman of Matchbox 20.” I did. I won. My friend Jody and I went to the concert the night before my Grandpa’s funeral and I said a private, quiet goodbye to him when I heard the head honcho line.

At the concert, I was impressed. I have always loved musicians who wrote their own music: Lennon and McCartney, Andersson & Ulvaeus, Billy Joel, the Finn brothers. (Don’t bother hating on my musical taste; I’m way too old to care). These guys also write their own stuff. Thomas played: guitar, piano, even drums. Part of the set was acoustic, and I was awed. At one point I saw Adam Gaynor (who has since left the band) beckon a security guard, indicating that he wanted to give his plectrum to someone in the audience. I rolled my eyes, expecting it to be some buxom blonde. It wasn’t. It was a kid, about ten years old, there with his Mum and floating on air when he received it. I was impressed. These guys, it seemed, were class acts.

Jody and I were both pregnant with our second babies at the time. I came home from the concert and my husband asked how it was. Two things, I said. From now on, I want to go see these guys whenever they tour. Also, Rob Thomas is a nice name.

Now in my defence, Robert and Thomas were both family names that were already on the short list (along with one other). It just wasn’t a combination we’d put together before. But I had a moment during that concert when I thought, I wouldn’t mind if my son turned out like one of these guys. And so I have an almost-15 year old whose given names are Robert Thomas, in that order. And last week, Live Nation contacted me to say I’d won two tickets and a meet and greet in Sydney with Rob Thomas in Sydney next week, because I shared the story of my boy’s name and said I’d like to introduce him to his namesake. I have been quietly freaking out ever since. Via email, Roslyn reassured me that my worst fears were unlikely to come true: Rob Thomas probably won’t think I’m an unintelligible idiot who can’t string a sentence together; and if he thinks I’m nuts for naming my kid after a pop/rock singer, there’s nothing I can do about it now. But, as I confided to my daughter, my greatest fear really is: what if he turns out to be a jerk, and I’ve named my kid after him?

The love affair with MB2o and RT is ongoing, and has seen me through some tough times. When my Rob was 3 and my daughter was 5, I was diagnosed with choriocarcinoma; a cancer that is rare, aggressive, and thankfully, treatable. I had a clunky blue Discman and my MB20 albums to get me through long lonely nights in the oncology ward, away from my husband and kids. The song 3AM came to have particular significance. So did others. Years later, I was being interviewed on-air at Relay for Life about my cancer experience and Ricardo Bardon, a wonderfully supportive local DJ who was there with our sponsors Power FM, asked me how I got through it. “Well,” I said, “I discovered just how dark my sense of humour is. And I listened to a lot of Matchbox 20.” He raised his eyebrows, so I elaborated, citing lyrics: “I’ve got a disease/down deep inside me.” He laughed. I continued, “I’m not crazy/I’m just a little unwell.”

almost

Let’s see how far we’ve come …

I’ve been in complete remission for more than a decade, but having had a serious illness changes your views on mortality a bit, to the point where I’m no longer scared of it, and I tell the kids what I expect at my funeral. Well, I am the planning queen of the household, I won’t be able to do it, and I want it done right. This makes them a bit uncomfortable, but their father has the memory span of a goldfish (in fact, most days he can’t remember the names of his own goldfish), so there’s not much point telling him. So I’ve told the kids that they are to play “Little Wonders” at my funeral, or I will haunt them. This makes them roll their eyes, complain, and also look at me in sort of amused horror when the song plays on my iPod in the car.

My daughter was once complaining about this to one of my young students whom we sort of semi-adopted, Josh. Josh grinned at me and said, “it’s the perfect song.”

Josh is Koori.

Several years back, I wrote my PhD thesis about Indigenous writers and writing, looking specifically at how colonisation and forcing people off country caused social problems, and influenced Indigenous writing. I’ve tried to walk the walk, too; teaching academic literacies to students in the Aboriginal Education and Training Unit in Nowra (a site opposite the Bomaderry Homes), working with the fabulous staff and students at Woolyungah Indigenous Centre whenever I get the chance, teaching into the Djinggi Project, being a “yellafella” volunteer at the National Reconciliation Conference in Wollongong way back in 1999. We’ve blogged about racism in Australian sport, and the power of inappropriate comments. Last month, I was in a class at UNSW when a friend who is an immigrant from Britain said that she couldn’t really understand the link to country, but that she respected it. The lecturer pointed out that many Australians don’t really understand the symbiotic link to country, either, and commented on the current government “plan” to shut down some remote communities. Hang on, I argued, even if we don’t get it, surely we know that this doesn’t work, because they tried this in Cherbourg in Queensland, and Bomaderry in New South Wales, and Moore Rover in Western Australian, and a whole bunch of other places, and it didn’t work then, either. The lecturer looked at me and said, “yes, but most Australians aren’t as well educated as you.”

Gulp.

Back to Rob Thomas. So, for my birthday, my firstborn decided I needed concert tickets. She enlisted her father’s help, because the ticket price was a bit beyond her, and then I further complicated things by insisting on going to Melbourne because none of the NSW concerts were indoors, and we once booked the whole family tickets to Day on the Green at Moss Vale on Valentine’s day (Rob Thomas’ birthday!) and it poured, and my husband said we couldn’t take the kids out in that, and I wept all the way back to Nowra. I’m sure I’ll get over it one day, but I’m still at the point where I’d rather pay for airfares and accommodation than have that happen ever again. So we were at Rod Laver Arena for the first show of the Australian tour. We were there for that comment.

RLA for RT

The crazy eyes on me give away the level of excitement

Basically, the story in a nutshell goes: there were technical difficulties. Rob Thomas turned and asked his band if it was all of them, and one of the backing singers clearly said, yes. He then tried to fill for a bit, saying he’d tell a story. He decided to share his cure for jet lag. First, he said, I start drinking as soon as I get on the plane, and I drink until I think I’m Australian. We all laughed. Then, he said, I drink until I think I’m a black Australian. There was a collective gasp. I turned to my daughter in disbelief. This is a guy who sings, “My sisters and my brothers/of every different colour;” a guy who had a clearly multicultural band, whose wife and in-laws are Latina, and someone who advocates for all kinds of human, as well as animal rights (in the picture above, my daughter is wearing an anti- animal cruelty Sidewalk Angels shirt). It seemed out of character. Then he said to someone up the front, “don’t be racist.” He went on to say that after that, he drinks until he thinks he’s a little girl, and then his wife gets worried about him.

Right then, I was worried for him. I couldn’t reconcile it: how could a “drink until I think I’m black” comment be OK, anywhere?

The concert went on, we had a good time, we managed to navigate the vagaries of Melbourne public transport and we got back to our weird little hotel and went to bed. I woke up and the first thing I read on Sunday morning was Rob Thomas’ apology on Facebook.

RT apology 1

OK, I thought. Seems sincere. I still don’t get why it would be OK anywhere, or why he thinks it’s only at this point in time, but it seems genuine, and it seems like it’s him (not some PR person). That’s good.

Then people started messaging me: Oh dear. Hope this didn’t ruin your night. And so on. And they were sending links to the media reports of it.

I made the mistake of reading some of the comments under the FB post. There were waaaay too many people saying Aussies have lost their sense of humour; the PC “police” have ruined the world; people should drink a cup of concrete and harden up, no one could/should/would be offended unless there was something wrong with them; Aborigines do drink (seriously?) … and on and on it went.

Read the man’s apology. He’s not saying, “I wish that I didn’t have to be politically correct.” He’s saying, “I’m sorry that I wasn’t politically correct.” Being politically correct is not a bad thing; it’s the same as the great Aussie practice of “giving a stuff.” He was upset that he had caused offence, not complaining about those who took it.

A number of people were obviously thinking along the same lines as me, in terms of, how could that comment be OK anywhere? And a second apology, with a further explanation, was forthcoming.

RT apology 2

OK, that makes a little more sense. Again, many commenters missed the point and were telling him that “true Aussies” got what he meant.

Well, no. I’m not sure we did. Once I read the context in the second apology, I was closer to “getting” it, though.

It is very tempting, when you are a “fan,” to excuse even the inexcusable. You only have to consider the etymology of the word to see why this happens: only a fanatic will think that their idol is right, all the time. I am not apologising for or excusing the comment. It was the wrong thing to say.

Rob Thomas has acknowledged that. He’s apologised. He’s said what he’s going to do–educate himself–in order to rectify that.

So: the guy is not, as it turns out, a jerk (one arguably inadvertent jerky comment notwithstanding). If my son grows up to be someone who admits his mistakes, explains them without making excuses for them, apologises, and attempts to make amends, I’ll be a very proud mother. Rob Thomas is still a nice name, and I will still be pretty happy if my son grows up to be a little bit like him … because I want both my kids to take responsibility for their actions, and their mistakes.

P.S.

If you’d like to show support for Indigenous Australians in a tangible way, this mob do great things for students, both in school and at Uni:  AIME Mentoring

And for those who usually donate to Relay, here’s the 2016 link.

Thank you!

 

 


Giles, Stiles, and trips to Sydney … GANZA Mark II

Last time I blogged about the GANZA conference, it took me a very long time to get around to doing it. So pick your collective self up off the floor, dear readers, because this time around I’m getting around to it a scant few days after the 2nd biennial conference, themed “Gothic Spaces: Boundaries, Mergence and Liminalities.”

The conference opened with a plenary session from Professor John Stephens about the Gothic in Children’s literature, which I throroughly enjoyed. Professor Stephens introduced us to the picture book of Cinderella Skeleton, who is my kind of princess. Not content with losing her slipper, in this version the would-be princess loses her entire foot.

cinderella skeletonThe next session I attended included papers from Anna Jackson (continuing the tradition of sitting in awe as you’re in the same room as people you’ve cited), Samuel Finegan, Erin Mercer and Elizabeth Kinder. The topics ranged from ideas about memory and privacy, to incest and rape, to the use of candles and simulacra to mimic urban legends, to the “armed bastards” of Life on Mars and Ashes to AshesThis little snapshot kind of gives you a feel for GANZA: postgrads, early career researchers and experts in the field mingle, and the content covered is broad ranging. Over the course of two days, we discussed the Gothic as it appeared in TV, film, literature, fashion, food, architecture, geography, medicine, disability and more.

My paper this time around was inspired by a conversation with my teenaged daughter, who has finally overcome her resistance to reading/watching “anything Mum works on” because her friends are all into Buffy, The Vampire Diaries and Teen Wolf. In fact, at any given point in time she’s usually more up-to-date than I am, since I tend to binge-watch when I have a looming deadline. Anyway, at some point she came home and in that shocked tone that teenagers use when a parent is right, asked “how I knew” that something I’d said would happen, would happen. I replied: “Because I’m Giles; the watcher from the margins. The teacher” to which she retorted: “and Stiles.” And of course, she was right: Stiles IS the Watcher of Teen Wolf; the token human, the guy who needs to be protected but who has the knowledge and research skills to develop the plans. Only he’s not an adult British tweed wearing bloke with a massive distrust of computers, so how do they keep him in the margins? By adding a series of illnesses and disabilities, of course. As the wolves are managing and embracing their “condition” of lycanthropy, Stiles is shown repeatedly to be weak, sick, incurably human. Or as he puts it, because he’s every bit as into pop culture as we are: he’s always Robin to Scott-the-teen-alpha’s Batman.

Day 2 saw the second plenary, this time from Professor Paul Giles. It focussed on the “Antipodean Gothic;” happily, something that felt more homely than unhomely to me (Roslyn and I both did our PhDs under the supervision of Professor Gerry Turcotte. If you type “Australian Gothic” into Google, the first two entries that pop up were both authored by him). This was followed by more fantastic panel sessions.

After the conference’s close and packing away the conference rooms, we headed off to the Hero of Waterloo in the Rocks for a Gothic trivia night and ghost tour. Unfortunately those of us who were actually carrying everything needed for said quiz hopped into a cab with Sydney’s worst taxi driver, who told us he had never heard of the Hero of Waterloo (Sydney’s oldest pub and a stop on the famous Rocks ghost tour) and didn’t know of Fort Street (!) when we helpfully gave him the street address instead. He then asked us (from Auckland, Newcastle and Nowra) for directions. What ensued was a whacky and needlessly long and expensive trek through Sydney with directions coming from a passenger’s iPhone that was on 1% battery. When I realised that nothing in the cab worked – not the GPS, not the clock, and I’m willing to bet that there was something odd with the meter, given that the ride home was about half the price–we began to speculate that perhaps we had slipped into some kind of fantastic wormhole ourselves. Finally we pulled up just past the pub in a screech of brakes, to be greeted by a lot of anxious quiz-goers who were wondering if they had gone to the wrong place.

81 lower fort street

There were some pretty big hints as to its location.

There were some pretty big hints as to its location.

Anyway, all that drama aside, we had a lovely quiz which was very tight and involved quite minimal smartphone-based cheating. We then headed into the depths of hell rather warm basement and cellar and were treated to a quick history of how publicans past used to drug likely souls, shove them down a trapdoor and then push them out a tunnel and onto a boat while they were still out to it. Our host had one of those lively lilting Irish accents that helps you suspend disbelief–I would have cheerfully listened to him recite the Periodic Table of Elements, I think. The tunnel and trapdoor have long since been “made safe” but there are still shackles in the sandstone that used to be used as a kind of holding bay on busy nights. There’s also apparently a ghost, the late wife of a former publication who shoved her down the trapdoor during an argument and snapped her neck in the process. So be careful about those petty arguments with your spouse, people, especially if shanghai-ing strangers is an entry in your significant other’s CV.

Sadly, we didn’t see any ghosts, but that could be because I didn’t think through my wardrobe choices and turned up wearing my favourite Ghostbusters T-shirt. Sorry, guys.


The shapeshifting Snow Queen and all things Frozen

Shameless confession time: I love Frozen.

frozen cast

There, I’ve said it, I’ve aligned myself with every six year old girl on the planet, and I don’t even care. It’s a great movie. The songs are catchy (painfully so). Elphaba and Veronica Mars sing in it. It’s a lot of fun. And there’s a ridiculously cute snowman.

olaf

Less fun is the creepy animation with the girls’ unnatural looks. Come on, Disney, enough with fake Barbie looking characters. (Beware the link; as an article about unrealistic body images for women, the lingerie ad that appeared when I read it was slightly ironic.)

frozen sisters2

Also less fun is the way “Let it Go” gets stuck in your head, or hearing every single small girl around the world sing it. Literally. I have been walking in Spain and heard a little girl singing it in the street. They were screening it in Norway when I was there (and you can go tour the places that inspired the film). Flying back home to Australia, I listened to another young girl singing it in the plane as we waited for take off. And for a while social media was awash with variations on “Let it Go” (and variations on “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”). You can even sing along yourself.

Okay,  I don’t love it that much. Please, make it stop.

For anyone awakening today from a coma some years in the making, Frozen is a Disney animation based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale “The Snow Queen”.

In the original, parts of a cursed mirror fall into people’s eyes and distort their vision so they can no longer anything good or beautiful in the world but only what is bad and ugly. A boy, Kai, falls victim to the mirror, and begins to hate everything around him, even his best friend Gerda. He’s taken by the Snow Queen far, far away but Gerda’s a plucky girl, and battles her way through to save him with her love. It’s a great story.

The_Snow_Queen_by_Elena_Ringo

In Frozen, Disney has shaken up the story by making the Snow Queen a young queen called Elsa, who cannot control her ice-making powers and fears hurting those around her. Rather than offering her snowmaking services to local ski fields in need of some fresh powder, she runs off to set up camp on her own, far away from the rest of the world. She’s saved by the sacrificial love of a sibling rather than a suitor. Nobody gets married in the end. Is this a first for Disney fairytales?

frozen_anna

The Snow Queen has been a pretty popular lady lately, appearing in a range of popular texts. In Frozen, she’s a very sympathetic character who just wants to control her abilities without hurting anyone.

Frozen

She pops up on Once Upon a Time, the fairytale television program we’ve blogged about before, as a villain who turns out to be not such a villain after all.

Once upon

And she features in Jackson Pearce’s fourth book in her modern fairytales series, Cold Spell, a series we’ve previously blogged about. I shall not attempt to explain the complicated shapeshifting world in this series (seven sons, twins, triplets, mermaids, snow queens, gypsies, bad werewolves, misunderstood werewolves all appear), but suffice to say in this case, the Snow Queen is evil and has hidden herself away from society on a frozen island. She recruits a man-harem since she is desperate for love, men that she uses and abuses and turns into werewolves, until one day she gets her comeuppance from a plucky girl Ginny with a lot of love in her heart for one of the man-harem members, her best friend Kai. Cold Spell follows the original story more closely than other iterations, in a modern setting, and tries to engender some sympathy for the Snow Queen, though certainly not to the same extent as in Frozen.

cold spell

We’ve blogged here before about the current popularity of fairytales and how some have morphed over time into contemporary representations, as with Snow White and Red Riding Hood. The villain-misunderstood outsider-hero Snow Queen is yet another shapeshifting fairytale character to be recast in contemporary stories in more sympathetic terms. Based on the song and clothing choices of little girls around the world, Elsa from Frozen is the clear favourite of the current crop of Snow Queens.


The BBQ Line

I went to my high school reunion this past weekend. As I’ve noted elsewhere in cyberspace, I went to school in Lithgow, and that’s kind of like the real world equivalent of Old Lima Heights in Glee (I once had a rather senior academic tell me I was “quite impressive,” right after he asked where I’d gone to school. The “~for someone from Lithgow” was kind of left hanging, unspoken, in the air between us. Um, thank you, but no. There are some bloody funny, bloody smart people in any school with 1200 enrolments, and water finds its own level).

"Everyone you wanna be, prob'ly started off like me"

You may say that I’m a freak show …

The other thing I should flag before we go any further, is that almost no-one used their real name in Lithgow, so when I use derivatives of people surnames here, they’re not pseudonyms. They’re what I actually call these people, to their faces, except in front of members of their immediate family. So, having had nowhere near enough sleep but being in a reflective mood, I’d like to share a couple of the best pop-culture related moments of the evening.

First up, I caught up with a very dear mate I actually haven’t seen since, oh, about two months after we left school, which would be about when we all buggered off to various institutions of learning or work. I asked Shep what he’s doing now and he mumbled something about it being boring. I teased – does it have a job title? What’s on his payslip? And he prevaricated. He said has a job title but it doesn’t describe what he does. And I told him he needs a BBQ line. The “BBQ line” will be familiar to PhD candidates. You spend ages coming up with some lexically dense abstract that describes your project in terms that will make academics nod their heads sagely and say things like, “Hmmm, I think that might have legs.” But then you need a totally different, accessible, short line that you can use at the family barbecue in order to explain exactly how you are wasting your life spending your study time. Preferably before the relative with the tongs nods off and the snags get burned beyond recognition.

I reminded him that he’d recommended that I read Raymond E. Feist’s Magician. This was my first “adult” foray into the Fantasy genre. Sure, I’d read Narnia and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence and Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time–and I loved them!but I had kind of compartmentalised them as kids’ books. So here we were in Year 12 and I was being my complete stresshead self and he suggests I bugger off into an alternate world for a bit.

So I did.

And then I went to Uni and took Richard Harland‘s Fantasy subject where I was introduced to the wonders of Anne McCaffrey. (One of my classmates was the wonderful Adina West, by the way, if you’d like to check out some contemporary Australian Fantasy of the blood-drinking or shapeshifting persuasion).

And now, as I explained to my friend, one of the things I get to do is write about Fantasy.

And that’s my BBQ line. And for a moment we just stood there, grinning. Because it is kind of cool to realise that a conversation in a shared study period can actually lead somewhere totally unexpected.

Later in the evening, I was standing next to Shep’s best mate, Del. Actually, I was standing next to Del for much of the evening. He has an uncanny knack of finding the funny in everything and sometimes it’s borderline inappropriate, but because he’s always been supportive and incredibly kind, I let him get away with it. So at one point he’s in conversation with the other EngLit PhD from our year, who also happens to be a highly successful YA author. And they’re talking books. Oh yes, I was at the nerds’ table, and I’m owning that. I loved every minute of it. Anyway, so Del says how he read Feist’s Magician and that started him reading a whole bunch of Fantasy stuff. And so there was more grinning, and by now I’m thinking Shep should be getting some kind of commission from Feist’s publisher.

(And both lads, bless them, asked where they could find out more about what I’d published. You should find links scattered through this blog, fellas. We’re all about the shameless self-promotion, here. Plus, I’ve got half-a-dozen signed copies on my shelf at work, ready for sale, because I didn’t want to store them at mine and Ros moved halfway across the world so I’ve got her sale copies, too. Just sayin.’ No pressure).

Still later, I had a very earnest conversation with my mate Phoopie about the strengths of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, while our rather sober (in both senses of the word) friend Ols stood behind us rolling his eyes at said earnestness.

I spent a lot of time in the library, too.

I spent a lot of time in the library, too.

We didn’t spend the whole night talking books or cult TV, and I won’t regale you with all the you-had-to-be-there jokes. But I did feel as though I was on Graham Norton’s couch for a while there. Specifically, the night he had Bill Murray on. The conversation was smart and funny and self-deprecating and I really hope I don’t have to wait another twenty-something years for the next burst.

But on the long drive back yesterday, I was thinking about my BBQ line. And if I focus on that, it really does seem like I have the coolest job in the world. But lately I haven’t been feeling it. Some of my teaching is incredibly cool, too. I work with the most disadvantaged students in the Uni, and while I would be lying if I said that I was always able to make a difference, when I do see progress, it’s spectacularly rewarding. So this week, I am going to try to focus on the BBQ line, rather than the mire of the day-to-day, and see if I’m less of a stresshead by escaping that way. Failing that, I’m going to escape into a Fantasy novel.

* This post is dedicated to the memory of our library mate, Ben R. We wish you were at the nerds’ table with us this weekend.


Are zombies the new vampires? Part 2

Someone rather foolishly once wrote on this blog that vampires and werewolves are easily cast as romantic heroes, while zombies languish as the unwanted and rejected lovers, unable to ever meet anyone because they always want to eat everyone.

Okay, that was me, and I was wrong. An astute reader of this blog (thanks Frank) pointed me towards a film called Warm Bodies (2013), a romantic zombie comedy film (rozomedy?) about a teenage girl’s romance with a “sensitive undead” after a zombie apocalypse.

Sensitive undead? Apocalypse?

Sign me up right now!

So it is time to admit my error – sorry, two readers of this blog – and update my previous musings on the topic of paranormal suitors.

Warm Bodies takes place in a post-apocalyptic North American setting, 8 years after the usual kind of vague apocalyptic plague thingy happened. We begin with R, a zombie suffering existential angst as he wanders around an abandoned airport now inhabited by fellow zombies. He wonders about the meaning of life now that he has none: he feels alone, longs to connect with other people, and wonders if his life would be better if he worked on his posture and had more respect.

Nearby, humans are living in a fortified urban enclosure, worrying about extinction, and occasionally venturing outside to find more resources and medical supplies. A human team sent outside encounters R and fellow zombies who are out for a stroll looking for food. They fight. Zombies eat the humans. Well, most of them.

The humans include a girl called Julie and her boyfriend, and R eats her boyfriend’s brains but saves Julie and takes her back to his crib (an abandoned plane). R is embarrassed about his love of eating brains but he also relishes it … bad pun, sorry … because when he eats someone’s brains he captures their memories and feelings.

So, when he kills Julie’s boyfriend, his initial interest in Julie takes on an added dimension because of those captured feelings. Cue unexpected romance between our leads R and Julie, Shakespearean connotations and all. He plays her bad music, occasionally summons up an actual word or two instead of his usual grunts, and struggles to understand her. In other words, your typical man and woman attempting to date.

warm_bodies_ver12

The movie gives us levels of zombie-ness: R is unusual for the fact that he has some thinking and caring abilities despite his love of eating brains and limited speech, and over the course of the film he and fellow zombies gradually become more human. The bad zombies are those who have lost all humanity and turn into skeletal CGI “bonies”.

It’s a funny movie in a low-key way. There’s plenty of self-referential humour about the zombie genre and wordplay on life and death. “Welcome to the dead zone,” graffiti announces to the human team exiting the compound, “Look alive out there!!!!” “This date is not going well,” R thinks as he struggles to communicate with Julie. “I’m going to die all over again.”

At one point Julie holds up to R the DVD cover of Zombie (1979), the very image I chose for my earlier blog post to illustrate how unromantic most zombies would be as heroes, which is a nice contrast for this current post.

So was I wrong about the romantic lead thing? Maybe. R is appealing in the way of all awkward, socially inept characters whose communication skills might be lacking but whose sincerity can’t be doubted. Which makes a nice change from those uber handsome, rich, smooth talking vamps that so many teenage girls love. And the film’s celebration of brainy girls is worth some props.

OK so it’s kind of completely undermined by the busty blonde pose, but hey, let’s give them points for trying to be funny anyway. And, like the similar meme running round social media that there’s nothing hotter than a man who reads, they are sentiments we can heartily subscribe to here. But such sentiments mean the typical non-Warm Bodies zombie still remains unattractive as the thinking woman’s romantic lead, since most of them can’t exactly think, let alone read.

If nothing else, though, R has nailed the zombie version of the intense leading man stare, so maybe there’s hope for lonely zombies yet.