Dispatches #169: Motherhood contracts, phone boxes and book battles
Thursday, 26 October 2017Welcome to Dispatches, a weekly summary of my writing, listening and reading habits. I'm Andrew McMillen, a freelance journalist and author based in Brisbane, Australia.
No new words this week, and I'll be travelling next week (to interview @ned on stage at Steemfest!), so I'm unsure whether I'll be able to send a dispatch while on the road. We'll see!
Lorde on Song Exploder (21 minutes). I loved this insight into the brain of New Zealand songwriter Lorde, who describes the lengthy production process behind the song 'Sober' from her second album Melodrama. It's really refreshing to hear someone speak with such love and fascination about the art of making music.
James Boyce on Conversations with Richard Fidler (45 minutes). An excellent overview of the history of poker machines in Tasmania by James Boyce, who has written a book on this subject named Losing Streak: How Tasmania Was Gamed by the Gaming Industry. Fidler interviewed him at the Tasmanian Writers and Readers Festival, and it's great to hear the groaned responses from the local audience as Boyce unpacks his research.
Lorde (aka Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O'Connor) is a Grammy-award winning singer, songwriter, and producer. Her second album, Melodrama, debuted at number one on the charts in June 2017 – five months before her 21st birthday. In this episode, Ella breaks down her song "Sober." You'll hear how it started, with the original demos she made with her co-producer Jack Antonoff, and how the song changed over the course of working on it for months and months.
Why I Steal on Death, Sex + Money (22 minutes). I enjoyed this interview with a pseudonymous woman who supplements her income by shoplifting, and describes how she justifies this behaviour to herself and her partner.
Hobart's Wrest Point Casino opened in 1973 with assurances its revenue would come mostly from high-rollers outside the state. The state government insisted there would be no poker machines. But that's not how it worked out. Today the Federal Group owns a complete monopoly, not just on the Tasmania's two casinos, but on every poker machine in the state. James Boyce is an historian and author, who has followed the story of the Federal's dominance of the state's gaming industry for several decades.
Michael Graff on The Sunday Long Read Podcast (41 minutes). I hadn't heard of Michael Graff before I queued this episode, but I subscribed to the podcast because I'm a fan of the weekly newsletter The Sunday Long Read. There's one particularly excellent metaphor that Graff uses toward the end of this conversation that I found extremely helpful, and I think it'll prove useful in my own writing. Thanks, Michael.
Alice* lives in a small town, where the work dries up in the winter. She and her husband have jobs at a seasonal restaurant, where she says they each make about $500 a week. When it gets cold, they go on unemployment to support themselves and their young daughter. Alice supplements that income by shoplifting. "I do have rules that I follow," she explained. "I don't ever lift from small mom-and-pop kinds of stores. When you lift from somewhere like Walmart they already have it built into their insurance...I would say it feels more like maybe a paper cut, as opposed to stabbing someone." We first learned about Alice last year through Tumblr, where there's an active community of people who say they shoplift. They post pictures of their "hauls," as well as tips for other lifters. For Alice, finding that community was huge. "It felt like I had people that I could talk to about it," she told me. "Because it is such a huge part of my life, and to have people that I could talk about it with like it was normal, that felt great. It just sort of opened up a whole new world of possibilities."
After writing Don's favorite story of last week, Michael N. Graff, an award-winning writer and editor from North Carolina, chatted about the writing life, the difference between journalism and essay-writing, the importance of nailing the most authentic details in our stories and this thing Michael has for crab cakes.
Rod Yates on Music Business Facts (58 minutes). An illuminating conversation with the editor of Rolling Stone Australia about how artists and writers can go about getting their work featured in the pages of the magazine.
Rod Yates and I go back many years, we're both from good old Canberra, and Rod and I played shows when my band Alchemist played gigs with his band who were called Henry's Anger, and they were a great band- go and google em. Anyhow Rod has now become a gate keeper if you like for one of the world's most prestigious music print media brands. He's the editor of Rolling Stone Magazine Australia, and even during this hectic period of digital disruption, Rolling Stone seems to be holding its own. So I suppose this talk is a bit of an interrogation. I branded it as How To Get Your Music Featured In Major Music Outlets.
Breaking The Motherhood Contract on Ladies, We Need To Talk (21 minutes). I've been listening with interest to this newish ABC podcast, and I think this is its best episode to date, as it deals with the taboos that surround women who choose to let their partners raise their children without them.
At some point, most mums ask 'is this really what I want?'. Sure motherhood means cuddles, love and macaroni necklaces. It also means sleepless nights, tantrums and vomiting bugs. But what happens when you genuinely regret motherhood? Or find yourself choosing not to raise your children?
Helen Razer on Wilosophy with Wil Anderson (138 minutes). I loved this long and winding conversation with ever-entertaining and insightful writer Helen Razer, whose newest book Total Propaganda is billed as "basic Marxist brainwashing for the angry and the young".
Getting Wilosophical with Helen Razer
The Tragedy Of Aviana by Kate Aubusson in The Sydney Morning Herald (3,000 words / 15 minutes). An achingly beautiful story about a baby born with a rare, life-limiting genetic disorder, and how her parents have been coping with that knowledge since the diagnosis, as well as exploring an experimental and extraordinarily expensive drug treatment. This story was named as a finalist in the Walkley Awards for feature writing last week, and deservedly so: it's a stunning, moving piece of work accompanied by Kate Geraghty's wonderful photos. I really like Aubusson's sharp, clipped style of writing here. An absolute must-read, but fair warning: BYO tissues. (Also, a happy footnote: last month, Aviana celebrated her first birthday, to the surprise of all involved.)
The Girl in the No. 8 Jersey by John Branch in The New York Times (1,200 words / 6 minutes). Of all the stories that emerged out of the Las Vegas mass shooting, this is the saddest I've read. Exceptional storytelling in few words here by John Branch, who travelled to Vegas to report on the aftermath, then returned to his home in California to write about a local girl whose mother was killed by the shooter. (Again, BYO tissues.)
Bethan McElwee's fingers cradle her baby's feet. Her lips touch their soft soles as she blows gentle raspberries. Breathless staccato kisses for each toe. Six-month-old Aviana gurgles as she gazes at her mother. Her father, Johnny, rests his hands on Bethan's shoulders, protective. Guarded. "Be careful," Johnny says with a gentle urgency. "They said not to bend her too much." In an instant, the tender moment is wrenched into sharp focus. The bars of the hospital cot, the metronomic beeps of medical monitors, the blue plastic curtains, the nurse hovering, and the tiny bandage protecting a fresh wound on Aviana's lower back. Remnants of a lumbar puncture performed less than 10 minutes earlier. Aviana was born on July 7 last year, two weeks past her due date, and perfect. She breezed through her early health checks, developing so beautifully she had her four-month check-up several weeks early. The practice nurse noticed a flat spot on the back of Aviana's head. Bethan and her husband Johnny took their daughter to a paediatrician. Her head was fine, nothing to worry about, the paediatrician said. He looked at her legs. Her floppy, little legs, bent outwards like chubby boomerangs. "She was always frog-legged. We called her 'little froggy'," Bethan says now. "We just thought she was a chilled out baby ... She was so relaxed and has a very happy nature so we assumed it was just part of that." But babies are not floppy for no reason, the paediatrician told the new parents. A hip scan came back clear. Next came the blood test. Bethan caught a glimpse of the list of genetic conditions on the request form; all of them strange acronyms. Letters ordered in ways she'd not seen before. "I stupidly started Googling the things they were testing her for," Bethan recalls. "When I saw some were really serious I just ... I couldn't process it."
Her Own Way by Jordan Kisner in The Weekend Australian Magazine (3,000 words / 15 minutes). An excellent profile of actor Frances McDormand, who has shunned media attention throughout most of her career, instead preferring to let her on-screen work do the talking. It has worked rather well. If you haven't seen her extraordinary starring performance in the 2014 HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge, you must.
I was on the sideline of a soccer field two Saturdays ago, watching my 12-year-old daughter and her Novato teammates. I don't remember much about that game, but Novato won, and one of the goals was scored by the smallest girl on the team, a quick and feisty forward who wears a long ponytail and jersey No. 8. We whooped and cheered her name. I found out later that her parents weren't there that afternoon. They were in Las Vegas for a getaway weekend. About 36 hours later, I was on my way to Las Vegas myself, rushing to join my New York Times colleagues to cover the latest mass shooting, maybe bigger than them all. I hadn't covered one of them since 1999, when I was in the wrong place at the right time and rushed into the aftermath of Columbine. A colleague of mine and I checked into a massive suite at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, 11 floors directly below that of the shooter. It had the same view of the concert ground across the Strip, where investigators in the daylight were picking through the carnage of the night before. That was about when my wife sent me a text. That little soccer player's mom was at the concert the night before, she said. She's missing. But Stacee Etcheber was not my story. The gunman was. I spent a week mostly about 100 feet below where the shooter committed mass murder, trying to solve the mystery of what he'd done. I talked to people, followed every lead and wrote stories. It's what reporters do. It was a news story, as horrific as they come, and we're trained to keep our emotional distance from the things that we cover.
Clean Dream by Guy Kelly in The Weekend Australian Magazine (1,500 words / 8 minutes). I enjoyed this short profile of 23 year-old Dutch entrepreneur Boyan Slat, whose unique idea to remove plastic from the world's oceans has attracted a lot of attention and significant investment.
At 7pm in Paris, Frances McDormand is marching from the Right Bank to the Left at an extraordinary pace. "I'm practising my route," she says, speeding off in the wrong direction before stopping short. "Which way is the river?" she asks, scanning the narrow boulevards snaking in every direction. I point left, and she takes off so swiftly that I have to run to catch up. When I do, she is cursing under her breath at her faulty inner compass. She has lived most of her life in Manhattan. She likes grids. The route she is practising begins at the Centre Pompidou, where she is performing with experimental theatre company The Wooster Group, of which she has been a member for nearly two decades. It ends at a friend's apartment off the Boulevard Saint-Germain. She walks home alone after shows and doesn't use Google Maps. Her mobile phone still has buttons and a hinge. "Do you want me to look this up?" I ask, reaching for my smartphone, and she responds as if I've reached for the grenade pin. "NO! DON'T!" She shakes her head firmly. "Then we'll never learn." She catches a glimpse of the Seine and is gone again. Frances McDormand, or Fran, as she is called in regular life, cuts a handsome figure on the street. She is 60 and sexy in the manner of women who have achieved total self-possession. She eschews makeup unless she is working, doesn't dye her hair and despises the nips, tucks and lifts that have become routine for women of her profession.
Past Calling by Justin Heazlewood in Good Weekend (1,000 words / 5 minutes). A lovely ode to the Australian public telephone box, which is slowly but surely being removed from the nation's street corners and town centres.
Imagine, as you take a dip this summer, that you could pour all the world's oceans through a very fine sieve. What would you find? Well, first, you would probably notice that the old saying is correct: there are still plenty of fish in the sea. Numbers may be dwindling, but more than 22,000 fish species swim around in the Earth's waters, and they're joined by nearly double that amount of crustaceans – lobsters, barnacles, krill, that sort of thing. You could tot up about two million whales, as well as 18 types of seal and 17 types of penguin. You would find that the sea-turtle family has seven distinct species, while manatees have just three. You would count a lot of things, in short, but there is one outstanding component that doesn't belong there. Littered throughout the ocean, in all shapes and sizes, would be 5.25 trillion pieces of discarded plastic. And that is a problem. According to some estimates, eight million tonnes of waste plastic are flushed into the Earth's oceans every year. Some will end up back on our shores, some of it sinks straight to the seabed, but the majority stays afloat, hostage to the currents, and gets slowly dragged into one of five major ocean gyres (vast, swirling vortexes of water found in the north and south of the Pacific and Atlantic, and one in the Indian Ocean). Large items can remain intact for decades, bobbing around, occasionally trapping animals, before eventually suffering the same fate as all plastic: succumbing to the conditions and crumbling into tiny pieces. These microplastics are chemical pollutants, but they're also bite-sized. Fish, seabirds and other marine life mistake them for food, swallow them, and repeat that until it kills them.
Australia's Amazon Book Battle by Damien Cave in The New York Times (2,100 words / 11 minutes). A great overview of how Australian independent book sellers are viewing the impending threat of Amazon, which Damien Cave suggests will be a stress test not just for individual retail categories, but for the nation's own writing and way of life.
They hover by doorways in clubs, hospitals and bingo halls. They lurk on street corners, vacant and ignored. They gaze forlorn over coastal foreshores, reflecting the smeary glint of yesteryear. Unlike Big M flavoured milk and AM radio, these ungainly icons are not yet being mythologised. Collectors haven't racked up bids for this kind of memorabilia. Parents aren't riffing wistfully about prank calls made with a found phonecard. Yet along with video arcades and photo developers, these stoic drones are being forced off their lot. It's official. Public telephone boxes are on the way out. The number of these coin-fed relics has more than halved in the past decade, such that there are now only 24,573 of them around the country. Some have been reassigned as Wi-Fi hotspots, meaning they now operate like a very low-budget Tardis. But while the federal government has signed a 20-year deal with Telstra to maintain the remaining fleet, this year the Productivity Commission declared public phone boxes "past their use-by date". It's no surprise, given all this, that call use has plummeted. In 2014, according to the Australian Communications and Media Authority, only 9 per cent of Australians reported having used a public phone. I bet they were backpackers or schoolkids hiding from the rain. To the metro dweller, the phone box has become a cultural oddity. Really, who still uses them? Desperadoes making shady deals in hushed tones. By their very design, public phone users appear shifty, their backs turned, isolated from the mob. Members of the mobile community, by contrast, have nothing to hide. They walk with their heads held low, conversations broadcast for all to ignore.
Irreplaceable Writer, Noblest Friend by Stephen Romei in The Weekend Australian Inquirer (1,800 words / 9 minutes). A moving tribute to The Australian's music writer Iain Shedden written by his friend and colleague, literary editor Stephen Romei, who was tasked with reporting on Shedden's death for the next day's newspaper. Romei calls this "perhaps the saddest, strangest time of my 30-plus years in journalism".
When Borders opened in 2002 across the street from Readings, Melbourne's best-known independent bookseller, retail experts predicted catastrophe for the musty old shop competing with the shiny new chain store. Instead, Australians rejected Borders right into bankruptcy. Starbucks has also failed miserably here in a country where cafe loyalty is king. And when it comes to Amazon, which has announced it will open its warehouse-based online sales juggernaut soon in Australia, many book-loving Australians are not shy about hoping for another epitaph. "I want to beat them," said Mark Rubbo, Readings' co-owner, discussing Amazon as he stared across Lygon Street to where Borders used to be. "I don't like the idea of this monolith devouring everything." How much of the world's shopping habits Amazon will control worldwide is a question confronting retailers of all kinds. The "everything store," as the site is known, now stocks roughly 400 million products, from toothpaste and televisions to sex toys, and several Australian retail chains have already seen their stock prices decline since Amazon announced its plans in April. But changing Australians' reading habits may be more of a challenge. Books are bellwethers of great symbolic weight, not just because they were Amazon's first product and because the company often uses them to wedge itself into new markets, but also because books and bookstores are tightly linked to Australia's sense of itself, and to the country's beloved ecosystem of local commerce. You know all those bespoke experiences that American urbanites have been reviving: the artisanal butcher and barber shops, the gourmet grocer and the community bookstore? In Australia, though weakened by shopping centers, they never really died. This is still a place where many Australians can buy a novel, sausages and shampoo in three different shops, each owned by a neighbor with children at the local school.
Iain Shedden loved his wife of 20 years, journalist and filmmaker Christine Nestel. He adored and was so proud of their two children, beautiful, graceful Molly, 18, who finished high school last year and has a strong idea of what she wants to be, and 16-year-old Conor, who follows in his father's footsteps in being a decent, kind, caring soul. He is also sharp with a tennis racquet, which goes to show not everything is inherited. I say that as someone who faced (and returned!) Iain's serves every week. It sounds so simple, doesn't it? A man who loved his family. Maybe it is simple – it certainly should be – and that goes to why Iain's sudden, unexpected death this week, aged 60, has shattered and wrung out so many people. His wife and children lost a husband and father. His friends lost one of the truest, most honest, noblest people they will ever meet. Music stars from around the world lost a counterpart who was also a writer they were comfortable to talk to. This newspaper lost a music writer who is irreplaceable. I didn't know Iain as well as did his relatives and oldest friends. This is not an obituary – we ran one in the paper on Tuesday – so I am not going to talk about Iain's influence on the music industry, or about his own work as musician (though he had a beautiful singing voice). This is just a personal reflection on a friend I was grateful to have, and who I will miss.
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