Anyone who knows ANYTHING about me, knows that I am a BIG fan of a Good Dance Movie.
Hate action movies. Hate spy thrillers. Hate horror films. But a dance movie? I’m only human. Who am I to tell my spine not to arc in a shiver, or my skin to prick into goosebumps, when someone attempts a risky “throw this babe I’ve been flirting with into the air, catch her and then make out” manoeuvre like it’s not even slightly a big deal?
DANCE FILMS PRESENT LIFE AS HEIGHTENED AND SASSY AND I AM DOWN WITH THAT.
This is part of a larger realisation that came with watching a musical the other night. At one stage, I looked around the audience and realised EVERYONE IN THE AUDIENCE WAS SMILING.
EVERYONE WAS HAPPY.
This was so different to my usual experience of audiences, as a theatremaker myself, that I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the feeling. It flowered a little jonquil inside me that continues to squeak out, “maybe it’s OK not to be your most gritty, political self all the time. Sometimes, you can make that tired lady ROFL, instead of making her cry down her shirt because the world is ending.” I guess in an ideal diverse art landscape, you have art that does both. The beauty of an artistic community is that everyone has their own type of art. I love shitty dance films, but could never write one. I’m glad there are people out there who can, though. I hope they’re happy.
But, I digress.
On Sunday night I watched Step Up: All In with my friend Skye. From the opening scene, it was clear this was going to be a movie full of feelings and spinal chills. The protagonist, Bland White Guy, or Blah-Blah for short, was having some serious communication problems with his dance crew. Blah-Blah’s perspective on a life pursuing the muse is “Easy come, easy go.” Don’t you hate him?
Blah-Blah’s crew don’t feel quite so blithely relaxed about their future in the competitive world of dance. They say “Wake up, man! When are you going to stop acting like everything’s OK?”
Because things are not OK, not even a little bit. The troupe has been doing it really tough since their last commercial gig 6 months ago, where they got $50,000 for a Nike spot.
I’M SORRY – WHAT?! I love that even the most creative Hollywood dance-film screenwriter couldn’t see beyond the confines of his own foie-gras-crusted money-brain to think about what sort of earnings most freelance artists could expect from a dance gig.
If there was a dance troupe out there earning $50,000 willy nilly for a gig, they actually wouldn’t exist by the end of this sentence, because the rest of us jobbing artists would have killed them and would be snacking on their marrow right now for some important survival protein.
But anyway: this dance troupe are PISSED and they’re leaving Blah-Blah in order to pursue much more lucrative lives in industries like Who-Cares and You Traitor.
A few important plot points happen in too-quick-succession for this gal, still dazed at the size of that Nike cheque. One of the plot points is that Blah-Blah opens up his deluxe laptop and googles “dance auditions Los Angeles”. One popular hit comes up:
THE VORTEX, WITH ALEXXA BRAVA
XX for USSR! Alexxa is a Russian lady with a penetrating stare and the most incredibly demonstrative arms. She’s a mixture of Caesar Flicker from The Hunger Games and that time Karl Stefanovic was drunk on The Today Show. She tells the internet about a dance competition in Las Vegas where the winning dance troupe wins a 3 year contract to perform at a particularly impressive and depressing casino!
This piques Blah-Blah’s interest, but he doesn’t have time to dwell on it. He has to move out of his apartment because he’s totally broke after that shittily-paid Nike gig. He wanders to another part of town and enters a dance school; it’s his friend Moose’s family’s business, run by an extremely well-preserved Russian couple who say things like “you will be sleeping here in the closet of storage!”
Funny ethnics! Learn American already!
Now that Blah-Blah has somewhere to store his protein powder, acai berries and oversized singlet tops, he busies himself on TROUPE GENESIS DUTIES. First he hits up Moose, whom Skye assures me is a big deal from previous Step Up films. They grab a green smoothie together and talk shop. Moose is all “I don’t know man, I have a lucrative career as an Engineer now. I don’t dance anymore!” and Blah is like “don’t you miss dance?”
HEY MOOSE: it’s OK to miss dance! It doesn’t mean you have to give up your engineering career! Don’t follow Blah’s advice! Look at his resting dumbface! You are the winner here! You earn a regular pay cheque and have a lovely girlfriend!
But here’s the thing about Lovely Girlfriend. This woman is so keen to support all of Moose’s ambitions that she’s like “if you want something, I want you to have it. Since when did I become THAT girl?” She refuses to be a boner-shrinking naysayer. She’ll regret that later. WHEN IN DOUBT, NAYSAY.
Moose decides he’s in. He makes an excuse to his “deadpan yet lacking any panache” avatar of Boss (key line: “my grandmother was a jail warden”) and he and Blah go scouting for a new troupe of dancers.
And it’s a great troupe they gather. Some twins who look like Alex from Everything is Illuminated. A Kiwi girl who’s an amazing burger-flipper. A Korean girl who has the most INCREDIBLE taste in street wear.
(Side note: all these woman are dressed comfortably ALL the time. It’s very empowering and I won’t shovel even a tiny bit of snark their way because of it.)
But there’s one particularly important new addition to the troupe: Fragile and Complicated Love Interest Gal. Let’s call her Dicky Knee, because she hurt her knee once and now she’s scared to dance hard like she used to.
There’s an immediate competitive frisson between Dicky Knee and Blah-Blah, because it wouldn’t be Hollywood without a potential romantic relationship being framed as a site of battle between warring parties, until the weaker party accedes to the stronger, goes limp in their mouth, a flattened jugular and a weak cry of “OK, fine, you win me, because humans are winnable, own-able, property”. That is true romance.
Dicky Knee is freed from her former place of employ, but not before her and Blah have a sexy dance battle, giving Moose a chance to roll his eyes and go “does it ALWAYS have to end up in a giant dance battle?”
This is the part of the movie where the inciting incident has dropped like a well-timed anvil, and it’s making my heart feel things. Everyone has left their jobs, where they receive actual wages, in order to invest hopes, dreams and savings into this dance crew. It makes me realise: goddamn, artists sacrifice so much to do a job that makes many souls clap their hands and sing and louder sing, and we’re expected to live off the gruel of creative fulfilment alone. The lack of any sort of financial stability, the need for a leap of faith into the unknown, the constant hungry look over one’s shoulder for the next gig, and when it doesn’t come, the beginning of a sideways glance to consider dropping this career you have studied for and volunteered for and interned for and sweat out iron and tears for, because it sometimes is just too bloody bloody brutal to handle. I am really scared for this dance troupe because they are fumbling through the dark towards the hope for a better future, and who knows if they will get there. They might, but then: what next? They never know. They never will know. Part of this life is living in the dark.
The new troupe come together and their name is LMNTRIX. No comment.
OK, wait. I will comment. I hate it. It’s terrible. But they don’t have the money for workshopping it any more than they already have. They’re dry out of the Nike $50k. Maybe if the troupe could afford a clever dramaturg to sound out some good team names, this travesty wouldn’t have occurred, but George Brandis has ensured that no more dramaturgs are left, they have had to take new jobs douching his asshole every ten minutes so he can perform his ongoing slashes to Australian artistic and intellectual life with maximum squeaky-clean efficiency.
Anyway, it’s time for Step Up 4 to haul itself to Vegas, where the competition takes place in a casino hosting Rod Stewart’s show! It’s also time for me to haul myself into a bath that I will not miss for anything, not even the greatest movie of all time, so Skye agrees to take notes on what I miss.
The hotel where all the performers are staying is tacky and flashy and Skye nicknames it Orgy Palace. She notes that LMNTRIX is competing against dance troupes named Divine Intervention, The Mob and Night Crimes in the final. These names are TERRIBLE and I love them.
There’s also this note about the love-hate frisson between Blah and Dicky: “he wanted her to do a cool big dance move, but she has an old knee injury. She says IT’S ABOUT THE LOVE OF BEING IN A CREW! NOT WINNING, SEAN!”
And this is how I find out Blah-Blah’s name is Sean.
Skye also notes: “The racial diversity and talk of family values makes me think of Fast and Furious. NOT AS GOOD THO”
Somewhere in the time I was gone, Sean’s old dance troupe come back and are all “Wuffuck, bro? You didn’t even give us a text to say “let’s try this one last hurrah? Who even are you?”
Some more complications happen from there too, including finding out that Alexxa Brava is HAVING AN AFFAIR with a dancer from the warring crew! This is terrible news, because it means the competition is rigged! She’s gonna look after her fuckboy over anybody else!
In a logic that I’m too recently steamed and bathed to really understand, Sean realises the only solution to this problem is to merge his old crew with LMNTRIX and make ONE CONGLOMERATE OF SUPER TROUPE. He does, and they’re great. They’re ready to perform. They’re ready to WIN this rigged contest.
Somewhere in the rule book there’s surely a cap on the number of dancers allowed in each troupe, right? Or is this another Hollywood thing? In AUSTRAYA, all the major theatre companies tell you that you’re best off writing a one-hander or maximum three-person play, because then a company might ACTUALLY BE ABLE TO AFFORD TO PUT ON YOUR PLAY WITHOUT LOSING MONEY. If this troupe wins Vortex, the casino will have to pay 30 dancers 3 years worth of wages, and I guess if George Brandis was more au fait with how things are done in Vegas, baby, a lot of decisions made in Australian art policy would be a little more inspiring right now.
As the most charismatic member of LMNTRIX, and because it is Opposite Day, Sean gets up to address the crowd. He calls his troupe “the best of dancers” and then he corrects himself and says, “the best of friends.” That’s a spinal shiver right there. He’s coming through for us, ole Sean.
This is the moment where I think about how electric the first table read of this screenplay would have been. To have been a fly on the wall…
So it’s hard to properly explain how incredible the final dance piece is, so I’ll give you some buzz words: CHAINS. TYRES. LEAPING. THROWING. CATCHING. CAPES. GOGGLES. STUPID HATS. It’s a veritable wonderland of visual stimulus.
Skye sums it up with the following quote: “STEAMPUNK: it might look ugly, but it’s sexy, OK.”
There’s a potent moment where Dicky looks Sean dead in the eye and is like “let’s do the move that I’ve been scared of all this time. You throw me in the air and catch me again, and I’m going to trust the shit out of you. Do it. DO IT.”
And he does it. And he catches her. AND THEN THEY MAKE OUT IN FRONT OF A WIND MACHINE.
We all cry with joy. Lights flash. A girl does a robot dance. The wind rips sexily through billowing hair and past artfully displayed abs. Everyone is so happy.
Do they win? I don’t remember. I was too busy feeling proud of this motley crew of desperate losers, all sharing the same unreasonable dream: to train hard to be good at something that gives people joy, to share this joy with the world, and to have some sort of respect, financial benefit and career trajectory from providing this service to other humans who want it, need it and deserve it.
Dream on, stupid little dancers. Dream on.
Yes, of course.
For years, I used to think that my grandparents had written their own nifty doorbell tune, trademarked as The Bellamy Doorbell. That’s what Nana told me. Her and Popsi had come up with a clever melody that went “doo doo doo doo. Doo doo doo doo.”
It was a timeless tune: it just felt doorbell-appropriate. “What clever grandparents,” I thought. “Coming up with a tune that good after retirement! I guess that’s where my creativity comes from!”
One day I mentioned this to my friend Caro, and sang The Bellamy Doorbell tune to her. She paused, laughed a bit, and went “Jess? Those are the bells for BIG BEN.”
Recently I discovered a car wash I love in Melbourne named Grand Wash Auto. I love it for these reasons:
- It’s in an isolated industrial area and is always deserted.
- There are many shoe outlets nearby.
- The name is genius.
- You get to vacuum your own car for as long and as passionately as you like, without judgement.
- You don’t have to speak to another human being even once.
Until the day I discovered Grand Wash Auto, I maintained a more rustic car-care regimen of “wait til it rains and the problem will go away, unless it’s bat piss, sticky from the figs that this bat is pilfering and noshing on illegally from your garden, in which case, you should just sell the car.”
After my first Grand Wash Auto experience, I waxed lyrical to another friend about the lyrical waxing job that this clever machine had done to my automobile.
“It’s such good technology!” I gushed. “They have this clever system where you drive your right wheel onto a conveyer belt and put the car in Neutral and then the conveyer belt pushes your car through the jungle of sprays, mops, wipers and dryers via a logic that only it can command! What sort of robot genius invented this? Grand Wash Auto should patent it, stat!”
My friend paused and put on the same face Caro did when she tore my dream of Bellamy Family Musical Genius to shreds. “You know that every car wash ever does that? It’s standard. Across the board.”
It took me a little while to work out a theme for this Would Jess Like It post. It’s not doorbells. It’s not cluelessness. It’s not “this is what happens when you don’t get a real job”.
The closest I can get is “discovery”. The world is bigger than we understand it to be, pretty much always. So it’s nice to surround ourselves by smart people who pull us through an unfamiliar haze of global machinery, scrub off showerings of fig-sticky confusion, and wax the big big world slightly clearer.
Speaking of “discovery”: the Wikipedia page for “car wash” is two hours of joy that you will never get back, because those two hours will be clutched lovingly to your chest forever more. Enjoy the discovery.
This is a piece I wrote for Penguin Plays Rough about a year and a half ago, performed in the State Library of NSW in a room that was 100% haunted by things.
I was inspired to look at the story again because last week was William Butler Yeats’s 149th birthday.
Happy birthday, Willie! Enjoy this story and please don’t sue, I have good intentions, I promise.
(this is a photo owned by Penguin Plays Rough and is of me reading the story and also inhabiting a fashion phase called ‘swiss cheese sleeve’)
THE TWO TYPES OF YEATSIANS
Hello! Are you a Yeatsian? If you know what a Yeatsian is; if it makes your eyes perk up all soft and gooey, then you are a Yeatsian!
And if you frown a bit at this, roll the word around your mouth for a familiar taste, and, nope, you do not taste anything you know – then you are not a Yeatsian.
But the main way to work out if you’re a Yeatsian is – have you forked out 2100 bucks to fly to Sligo to attend a Yeats International Summer School, which is 2 weeks of YEATS YEATS YEATS ALL THE YEATS up in your throat?
Then you are definitely a Yeatsian. And you will meet other Yeatsians. And something odd and electric will happen when you first shake their pale sun-deprived hands – there’ll be what we call a “Yeats buzz’ – because 2 very unique obsessive souls will have clicked, in a way that is not opportunistic, but genuine.
And this is different from when you’re met Irishmen in bars, and they’ve quoted Yeats at you in the same way you might unenthusiastically plop out a rote-learnt verse of “I Love A Sunburnt Country” – the sort of men who’ve learnt that a random Yeats quotation to an obsessive Yeatsian is mysterious bra-loosening catnip, while Dorothea McKellar just makes you a little misty-eyed AT BEST.
No, this is different. You are connecting because you share one big weird obsession. You are all the type of people who highlight unattributed Yeats references in Sydney Morning Herald News Review articles and say things like “do they even REALISE they are unknowingly quoting HIM”, and so you will latch onto anyone who is like you.
You will join forces at Yeats Summer School, and you will attend lecture after lecture together on William Butler Yeats, and his family, and his homeland, and then all will be well and good, all ‘fairies and goblins and clover and prancing’ until something changes.
Two camps will suddenly form in this huddled mass of nerds – 2 types of Yeatsians.
There’s Type 1 – fans of the idealistic youthful Yeats. Type 1 fans love Willie’s early poems. The love for country, for rural life, for folklore and myth as the key to Ireland’s cultural identity. And most of all, Type 1 fans love his crippling lack of sexual confidence.
We LOVE this shit. A Nobel Laureate who can’t speak to a hottie without nervous-vomming down the front of his cravat? How approachable! How accessible! How come he never considered that the cravat might not be the pussy-magnet he always assumed it was? Never mind!
Young Yeats wrote poems about love and loss and longing that were the 1890s over-share equivalent of that girl on your facebook who’s always ‘liking’ articles about the empowerment of late-life virginity.
A great example of this over-share is Yeats’ poem The Wild Swans at Coole, where Yeats is literally bitching out a gaggle of swans for all the boning they’re getting up to while he sits alone on the shore, watching his dreams of an heir evaporate into the bright Coole sky.
So that is Yeats Camp 1. I am Yeats Camp 1.
Yeats Camp 2 are the VISION peeps. What is a Vision peep? To tell you the truth, I only sort of know.
If you’re an expert on this, then I’m really sorry, but I am about to talk about A Vision with the sort of blithe overconfidence that comes from knowing the low low odds of there being a Type 1 OR Type 2 Yeatsian who is blog-literate enough to be reading this. So, let’s go.
From the 1910s, Yeats had started dancing to a new groove. He had been hanging regularly with a Kabbalah expert called Madame Blatavsky, and he liked the shiz this woman had to say.
He’d found a new bunch of friends in an occult group called The Order of the Golden Dawn, friends who thought his cape/cravat combo was a COOL look and not a weird look, and together they hung out at nighttimes talking spirituality and babes.
Their kind of spirituality was based around a bunch of triangles and Stars of Davids doing a bunch of things that made these guys’ brain and souls and gonads go WHOA, and so this was well and good.
Because: Yeats wasn’t even that sexually frustrated anymore. He’d found a lady to take his flower – just a couple of times – and with that rose well-plucked, he was ready to – you know –
So while he continued to write love-sick poems to his unattainable muse Maud Gonne, these poems were more of the “LOOK WHAT YOU’RE MISSING OUT ON” ilk, and less of the “Please please please touch it” variety.
This left a lot of space in his mind to put sex-trauma in the bottom drawer, and instead work on his wider spiritual journey. Part of that journey entailed asking himself questions like:
- How is life structured? Do we live and then die, or does something spookier happen?
- Is life one straight line, or is a turning, wobbling gyre, a concept that I think means: does life look like one of those slinkys that go downstairs by themselves, connected to a whole bunch of other slinkies, all of them going downstairs at the same time, connected to different parts of their slinky torsos?
- If the end of the world involves a rough beast, its hour come at last, slouching towards Bethlehem to be born – does he mean a massive tan-coloured hybrid of lion + elephant, a Day of Retribution Liophant – some sort of apocalyptic creature with emerald eyes and a long striped trunk – because that would be AMAZING amirite?
Yeats got to a stage of life where he was contemplating all of these big questions –
Would it have eyelashes, this beast?
Can you look it in the eye and survive?
How do I even pronounce ‘gyre’?
Yeats put all of these Qs and these As in a book called A Vision, to be forever cherished by the weirdo Type 2 Yeatsians out there.
And obviously, with questions like this taking over your waking and sleeping hours, there’s not a lot of room anymore for “where dips the rocky highland of Sleuth Wood in the lake, there lies a leafy island, where flapping herons wake the drowsy water rats”.
While that sort of poetry is pretty and dreamy and beautiful, it is quite easily trumped by “THINGS FALL APART. THE CENTRE CANNOT HOLD. MERE ANARCHY IS LOOSED UPON THE WORLD”.
And this is what brings us to this story’s dilemma.
It’s the 1917 wedding night of WB Yeats and Georgie Hyde Lees. Maybe their first time alone together. They’ve only been dating for a month. They’re in their private marital chamber, and Georgie’s got her copy of “The Celtic Twilight” clutched to her bosom.
“You are Diarmid and I am Grania! Let me free your love harp like Cathleen ni Houlihan freed the hills of Erin! We can roleplay Deirde and Naoise if you like, but I am not cool with blackface!”
And eyes brimming with hope – erotic hope – she waits for Willie’s sexy, floaty, fairyland offer in return.
And what she gets is: TURNING AND TURNING IN THE WIDENING GYRE. THE FALCON CANNOT HEAR THE FALCONER.
Whaaaat? This might sound like a risky sex dare from Irish Cosmo, but it is nothing nearly as good as that.
This is not what Georgie wants. What happened to soft words, romance words? Why is the occult in her bridal chamber? Why have dudes gotta be so fucking complicated?
This is a test. This is about what Georgie can offer William, beyond his basic “human needs”, aka “rogering”.
Is Georgie his spiritual equal, or just a young girl who has been swept away into something bigger than she realised? And if so: what is she meant to do about it?
Think carefully Georgie. A lot rides on this. Think. Think.
And so she thinks. And she decides.
And she raises her eyes somewhere higher. Her mind and her body and her love are not enough for this union. Not enough to keep this old man and this young girl together, properly so, in the way that she wants.
A higher plane is needed, an avenue she had not considered open til now, until circumstance makes it essential.
So she picks up a pen.
She closes her eyes.
And says something like, “there’s a voice speaking through me, and I need to write it down. I’ve always had this gift. I’ve never told anyone before.”
And the poet’s eyes prick up, like a tipsy Yeatsian noticing another tipsy Yeatsian in a bar called Shoot the Crows around closing time, on the final night of Yeats Summer School.
“Do you really, Mrs Yeats?”
“She’s beyond the grave, and speaking to me. She wants to be heard. Shall I write down what she says?”
And she pours voices onto pages, for him.
Voices he connects to time and people before and after him, different narratives from different slinkies, knotted together on the great circular staircase of many, many lives.
And as she writes these findings, these dredgings, of past life, of the hope for new love, this is the vision we are left with.
For him, the life he wants.
For her, the concession she’ll make.
For the rest of us: a mystery.
The thing about Would Jess Like It that you may have noticed by now is that there’s not a lot of rigour to my posting. Usually I update this blog when I’m between playwriting projects and looking for a creative outlet, because if I go for too long without writing I end up spending all day in bed watching Parks and Rec and crying solely at the happy bits.
Therefore, I save up little scraps of valuable and memorable past experiences for these exact moments, easy little starting points for a creative undertaking that will take me less than thirty minutes to do, and will then let me get back to important things like meal planning and dog analysis.
One such creative scrap I have saved up is my experience seeing the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus at Christmas time in 2013. But first, you need some context.
I was in San Francisco in December, and it was a little cold and lonely. I had just left some of my favourite people in the world behind in Singapore, and spent too little time with my childhood best friend in Los Angeles, only to find myself alone, without any of these people, in San Francisco.
I had also had my jacket stolen, because apparently people steal jackets. An ex-cop called Kevin tried to help me find it, and that was a fun story, but not the story I’m telling you today.
Lost in the pockets of my jacket were a significant heirloom beanie that had belonged to my grandmother, and a series of business cards that described me as “playwright and dog enthusiast”. It was a low day, indeed.
I was also staying in a hotel way too posh for my liking, with all the requisite clinical robotic interaction from staff that I’m not so good at dealing with. I like my customer service to be robust, flawed, and verging on TMI. I don’t want some smooth operator with straight hair, high heels and prowess with credit card swiping. It just doesn’t work for me.
The other thing about this hotel is that the walls were paper-thin and the rotating bevvy of neighbours during my stay were all there for one thing: 6am morning sex.
I don’t know if this is some niche San Francisco tourist bucket-list item, but these people were punctual, and they were loud. I would shiver in my coatless loneliness, turn up MTV to drown out their sounds, and try to work out my itinerary for the day.
One of my days in town had been earmarked for a hipster walking tour of San Francisco. This had been recommended to me by my sister Roz, who actually researches trips ahead of time, instead of waiting til she’s in a hotel room buffered on all sides by moaning Gen Xers. She told me about a tour called Wild SF Tours and I decided: why not give it a go.
I left my hotel in my new coat (thanks for trying, Kevin), made significant eye contact with the neighbours, also leaving their room for probably some gatorade and carb-loading, and joined the tour.
It was a great tour, but that’s also not the story I’m telling today, so go on the tour yourself and write your own blog about it. I’m mentioning the tour because the guy leading it walked us past the Castro Theatre and said “hey, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus is playing a Christmas show tonight. It’s going to be amazing. You guys should go.”
I got chatting with a very nice and extremely well-travelled woman named Jennifer and we decided that as people with no one to hang out with on Christmas, we would go see the show together.
And WHAT. A. SHOW.
The first moment I realised how amazing it was going to be was when two men came to sit down at the end of my row with a big white fluffy scarf on their lap, except, WHAT?
That’s not a big white fluffy scarf! That’s a motherfucking BICHON FRISE and that bichon frise is HERE FOR THE SHOW.
It’s important to note that this was a one-hour show. There were shows scheduled for 5pm, 7pm, and 9pm. So we knew we wouldn’t be in the theatre for long. But that owner of the bichon frise pretty much decided that this was some important shit to experience as a FAMILY.
We were at the 7pm show, which the choir master called “the hump show”. Imagine someone saying that to a whole room of gay men and their hags. The hoots were at a frequency that could shatter glass.
Anyway. The bichon loved the show, and I loved the show.
- The sassy conductor who would not even PAUSE between hilarious jokes, all of which I have forgotten, because of high-tenor excitement and glee.
- The guest singer Marina Harris coming onstage and admitting she had never been to the Castro before. The choir-master responded, “of course you’ve been to the Castro before; you’re either a lesbian or a fag-hag. Normal straight women don’t have dresses like that.”
- The moment where another guest singer, Matt Alber, spoke about his church background and childhood. He said, “my church kicked me out, but I moved to San Francisco and found a new one.” And the whole room erupted with whoops and cheers and cries of support and the waterworks were happening freer and faster than the episode of Parks and Rec where Lesley gets married.
- The chorus sung a bunch of Russian harmonies for solidarity with LGBT people in Russia and it was incredible.
- The whole show had sign language interpreting going on and it was ANIMATED.
- There was one song where the guys all dressed like flowers.
- And this advertisement was in the program.
So, that’s my experience with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. For one hour, I felt like I was part of the warmest, most inclusive community possible. I don’t know much about Christmas traditions (I used to think that an official Christmas food was macaroni), but whatever sort of alchemy trailed through the air that night still lives on in my memory, my soul and my spine.
Would Jess Like the Gay Men’s Chorus? Oh yes.
Would Jess Like American Ice Hockey.
Welcome to a slightly belated edition of Would Jess Like It, where I analyse a very interesting activity I participated in during my time in the United States of America.
It all began when my friend Miles told me to keep Saturday night free, because something was happening. This wasn’t difficult because I only had three friends in New York at that stage and Miles was easily the most dominant of all of them. (And still is).
So, after a day exploring the bagels of Park Slope, I followed Miles to the intentional living house where his wife Roz and her friend Katie were hanging out. This small glimpse into intentional living taught me that it involves many root vegetables and nice notes about things that are meaningful on the fridge. I liked it.
We then walked to a Zip Car pickup point where I learnt how car-sharing works in New York. You go in, and the dude working in a garage gets the car for you, and then it’s all yours for however many hours you book it. Pretty cool! Roz’s other friend Heather joined us, and it was GO GO GO. To Long Island!
It had snowed fairly recently and the roads were a bit unpleasant, but Roz got us there without any problems. “There” being a giant “coliseum” out in some part of Long Island. I knew Long Island only from The Great Gatsby, so I expected mainly billowing warm breezes, white linen, and rich jerks. Instead, it was a car park packed with excited people in jerseys who gave me much more of a Myrtle Wilson than Daisy Buchanan vibe.
So we get into the stadium and we’re bang on starting time. Except: there’s no freaking way I’m entering the stadium until I have purchased American Sport Food. Miles was all “don’t miss the American anthem, Jess” and I was all “DON’T MISS THE CHEESE SAUCE THAT COMES IN A VAT, MILES”.
I ended up with a $9 six-inch subway sandwich and a $5 bottle of water, and scurried upstairs for the match to take place.
The full name of the place was the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, and you know what that meant? This place had an agenda beyond just subway sandwiches and ice hockey: they were there to HONOUR THE TROOPS.
This meant that every now and then, the roving crowd camera would seek out an Army veteran in the crowd, show them on screen, and we would all have to stand up and honour them. The crowd took this in their stride: they were all very used to the process. Beer drinking and yelling would quickly abort, they would struggle to their feet, and the honouring would begin.
(The camera would also seek out other less venerated members of the crowd, such as kids having their birthdays, couples having anniversaries, and the cleavages of the Ice Babes whose job it was to shovel away ice between quarters wearing a tiny tiny outfit and grinning like it was the most fun they had ever had in their lives. This was the only part of ice hockey that made me feel moral discomfort).
But anyway: the game. Ice hockey is quite a frenetic, exciting game. There is heaps of sliding and smacking and whacking, but all in a fairly respectful matter. Everyone in our party was angling so damn hard for a fight to break out, but no dice. Sad face.
Instead, Miles tried to start a disturbance in our own neck of the woods, all proud home-team supporters, by appropriating the New York Islanders chant into one for the rival team, the Hurricanes, and bellowing it out every single chance he got. I guess Miles’ linguistic acuity allowed him to make the judgement call about how well the 3 syllables of the rival team names could work in the same chant. It worked DAMN well.
Imagine a full bleacher of Islander fans being serenaded by Miles’s booming voice bellowing “HU-RIC-ANES! HU-RIC-ANES!” Kids were staring, faces crumbled in confusion. Teenagers were mortified on his behalf. Parents didn’t know what to do. I had to pretend I was there chaperoning the 16 year olds wearing promise rings next to me, and no friend of this buffoon. No offence Miles.
Miles’s behaviour raised a few eyebrows, but no one took the bait and punched him in the face. I think this is a symbol of the way New York has changed into a safer and less violent place in the last few years, because, I know you should never say this, but Miles was SERIOUSLY ASKING FOR IT. If he hadn’t given me a free ticket, I probably would have punched him myself.
Anyway, I guess in any sport game there’s a winner and a loser (unlike Would Jess Like It where the only contest is “how much fun are you having” (“a little”)), so I just had to google who the winners were, and it turns out it was the visiting team. Therefore, a whole bunch of dejected Islanders hot-footed it out of the stadium like it was on fire, returned to their cars and steamed off home, and that was the end of ice hockey.
I had a great night. I tried a new type of processed cheese, I got to meet Roz’s friends, it was a nice chance to remember I shouldn’t miss Miles THAT much now that he lives in America, and I thought the entertaining brackets between quarters were just delightful, barring the need for gender equality in skimpily-clad ice-babes.
Ice Hockey gets a thumbs up from Would Jess Like It. Would go again.
Those of you who know me fairly well might know I have something of a musical inclination. I was in school band from Year 3 until Year 12. While at University, I played in a local brass band that would occasionally march around churches and play at ANZAC Days. It was a great way to hang out with a group of many sweet old men and maybe 2 very lovely women, and they were some good days.
This week I have been working in an outback Riverina town called Deniliquin. Deniliquin boasts many friendly locals, and a lot of sweet senior citizens. One of these was a poet called David, who I met at the Deniliquin Writer’s Group on Monday.
David thought I played the ukulele due to some deceptive publicity in the local paper, and I corrected him. I actually play the euphonium.
“The euphonium?” bellowed David. “Our euphonium player just died! Heart attack walking down the street! Just like that! Come and play the euphonium at our band practice tonight!”
I don’t know if any of you have seen the many-laughs-and-feels Jim Carrey vehicle Yes Man, but basically, this was an invitation I would be crazy to reject. So, at 7pm last night I set off to the Deniliquin Municipal Band practice.
(This band used to be a brass band, but due to dwindling numbers, has opened up to allow in saxophone, clarinet, flute and drums. It makes a big difference to the marches, and the couple of woodwind players add essential melodies to the Mozart medley in their practice folder. )
I walked in and met the conductor and my band neighbour, John. John is a sweet man who has patented his own tuba seat for band – it has a clever base on it to hold the tuba in place so it’s not too heavy on your legs. I won’t give you any more details in case you try to steal John’s idea. I would not be cool with that.
John is a bloke who loves music. He told me that he found it really easy to play the band’s version of “Climb Every Mountain” until the wife eventually sat him down to watch The Sound of Music. Now, he can’t play the song without choking up a little.
This became a glorious joke between John and I for the rest of practice. Any time he made an idle comment along the lines of “this is a beautiful song,” I’d turn to him sternly and say “keep it together, John!”
Oh it was great.
I also met my other neighbour Les, who had some useful wordplay to remember his name: “call me Hope-Less! Heh heh heh!”
I sat down awaiting the arrival of my Dead Man’s Eupho and received a rude shock. They didn’t have his eupho. Wherever it went, it wasn’t in the practice hall.
The only spare brass instrument available was the biggest effing tuba I’ve ever seen in my life.
Important facts: I’ve never played the tuba. It requires an entirely different use of mouth muscles, and perhaps a lesson or two. And I read bass clef, while all the band’s music was treble clef.
You know what, though? It was ok. The conductor gave me an excellent strategy to “ADD THREE FLATS! FLATTEN THE ACCIDENTALS! YOU’LL BE RIGHT!”
He was an great conductor. He was okay with the saxophonist’s kids running around in their onesies and with the fact I spent most of rehearsal playing the wrong key signature.
At one stage of the rehearsal, he said something a little bit profound: “There’s a lot of different rhythms and sounds going on, but you know what? You’re all thinking the same thing.”
At the end of rehearsal, I spent a few minutes checking out historic photos of the band. It has been around since at least 1907. A trombonist named Ron (“SOLDIER ON!”) showed me a photo from 1957 and pointed himself out in the front row. He was 23.
Thank you, Deniliquin Municipal Band for a night I will treasure. If anyone’s interested, we have a gig in a fortnight.
“I come from a long line of Rotarians. We’ve always believed that service is the rent you pay on earth.”
And with this, Tertia Butcher, Journalist from the Riverina Grazier and descendent of Rotarians, welcomes us to Bishop’s Lodge, Hay, on a sunny Saturday.
There’s a roomful of people here for an enrichment program run by the volunteers who manage this heritage venue with an enthusiasm and energy that is inspiring to witness.
I think I might be the youngest person in the room – and am already loving the requisite entitlement to be as cheeky as possible – when some of my Year 7 students come in. They’ve volunteered to film some of the day. They beat me in age and in community spirit. I should be deflated, but I’m inspired.
* * * * *
On frosty days, we would slide all the way along the wooden slats of the bridge.
If there’s one thing I like better than old people with stories, it’s interviewers who know just the right questions to ask these old people with stories so that we get the juiciest memories of time gone by.
Luckily, local historian and school teacher Lou Gardam was in charge of running an interview with John and Wal, two men in their 80s who had both lived at Bishop’s Lodge when it was a hostel for boys in the 1940s. They had amazing memories of the hierarchies in place: the Bishop was obviously highest up, made clear by his allocation of marmalade on his toast every day.
In order for rural boys to attend the local high school, the Bishop enclosed some of his veranda and made dorm rooms for boys to live in during school term. The dorms only barely insulated from harsh Hay winters, and the showers remained cold throughout the 1940s, but overall it seemed a pretty good life. On weekends, the boys would get free reign to fish in the nearby Murrumbidgee, and would only be harshly disciplined if they stole a noticeable amount of fruit from the neighbours’ trees.
The boys were of course required to attend church services at the in-house chapel, sometimes as altar boys. Luckily, Wal dealt with that unwanted responsibility by “knocking off some of the plonk” and getting caught. They also used to eat communion wafer, which I’m sure was delicious.
There’s something quite magical about trailing behind a couple of Old Boys in a quiet and subtle enough way that they don’t notice me doing so. I followed John and Wal into the Chapel, where one of the local volunteers, David, happened to be playing Danny Boy on the organ.
I’ve had many surreal moments in my life, but not much beats the following. Imagine a small room with very intense acoustics, a stained glass mural bathing the room in red and green light, two 80 year old men rifling through the pages of a 104 year old Bible, with Danny Boy piping through the air, and perhaps you’ve got an idea of what it was like.
Having just attended my 10 year high school reunion, I had already noticed how odd it feels to go to your old stomping ground and find that it has changed, and so have you. I remember feeling that parts of the grounds were recognisable, but the paths and the familiar ambling to get to those spots had changed. I’d feel little moments of familiarity, only to have that safety wrenched away. Imagine a 70 year reunion?
No wonder, when asked to re-enter the Chapel for our afternoon amble, Wal said bluntly, “I’m not going in there again.”
* * * * *
“Six months is such a pretty age”
As if we weren’t excited enough by the first hand memories of Wal and John, we were then allowed some one-on-one time with the extensive archive collection of Bishop’s Lodge.
I was particularly drawn to the story of a Bishop who had come out from Australia with his large family, only to have his six month old son die unexpectedly. His letters to his sister back home call the baby “it”. I might only be a wannabe psychologist, but if I can’t recognise “distancing to avoid the inevitable descent into traumatic shock, the sort that’s hard to extricate oneself from” then I’d better hand back my playwright cap.
This Bishop was a particularly artistic man. He would draw little sketches for his daughter Mary when he was called away from home to minister further outback. He’d sign letters “your silly old Daddy”. He seemed a sweet man, even to weathered old femo-atheists like myself.
Special credit goes to one line he wrote in a letter to Mary: “I hope you are not making yourself bilious with too many oranges.”
* * * * *
Rodents can’t live in a bulk material. It’s like a human in a silo.
At one stage, one of the volunteers from Bishop’s Lodge brought up something she had found in the roof of the place. She walked down the aisle between our seats, dangling quite loosely over our heads a heavy-looking wooden contraption.
The old boys had no idea what it was, but luckily a very nice and clearly very competent gentleman named Mr Tuckett had time to ruminate over morning tea, and gave us an extremely comprehensive rundown of the device.
It was a 19th century insulation tool, used to smooth down sawdust into a dense mass and prevent insect life within the roof. Some of you might wonder how that works? Thanks to Mr Tuckett, I can tell you. Rodents can’t live in a bulk material. It’s like a human in a silo. You get in, and you get stuck. You think, “oh well, I’m stuck, it’s ok. I’ll wait for someone to rescue me.” Wrong. The dense material surrounds you. You start to disperse carbon dioxide amongst the dense material. YOU SUFFOCATE.
No possums for Bishop’s Lodge.
(Mr Tuckett also intervened a little later to explain to us the use of acid-free plastics for archiving, but by then I was in prime ‘it’s nearly time for my fifth cake serving of the morning, so I’d better stare forward and will it so’ mode, and so I didn’t get to write it down.)
* * * * *
Oh, forget about the hyrid teas.
Do you know what a tea rose is? I sort of do. It’s a form of rose.
Did you know it’s controversial? Neither did I. Until I met Coleen.
Coleen is a rose expert. She even wears earrings with roses on them and a ring with roses on it and a hat that has an embroidered rose on it.
Coleen gave us the history of the very important rose varieties in the Bishop’s Lodge Garden. She mentioned that “there’s a bit of discussion over whether this is a heritage rose or not. Some people say that heritage roses were phased out in 1865 with the introduction of hybrid teas.”
Coleen’s friend Brendas stopped her abruptly with a firm outstretched hand and said “Oh, Colleen. Forget about the hybrid teas.”
So we did.
The garden at Bishop’s Lodge is spectacular. There is a ginormous range of roses, some of which are so incredibly perfumed that I forgot all modesty and ego and spent most of our garden tour with head down, bum up, nose inserted into every rose I could find.
Coleen mentioned that the rose garden is a special sanctuary for people who have lost those dear to them, or who are experiencing illness. There are benches throughout to sit and think. There is some wild asparagus too.
The ladies who run the garden have a phrase they like to say: “lives end, but plants go on and on.”
This spectacular garden is one way that a little bit of local history can live on. The plants that the Bishop brought over from England are still alive – still passing on moments of beauty, wonder and solace.
That’s pretty special, if you ask me.