Tag Archives: writers festival

In conversation: William Powers (and a lightening fast breastfeed)

Monkey arrived with tomato sauce smeared over his chin. He grabbed my hand as I stepped off the escalator and asked me what I’d been doing at the writers festival. Writing, I said. “But how were you writing Mama?” Sparrow is simultaneously desperate for sleep and needing a feed. The four of us sit in Beer Deluxe while Monkey eats a biscuit and then spills pale and frothy orange juice over the table. Sparrow sucks and murmurs, eyes rolling back in his head. I watch the clock. Could I feed, and hear about Monkey’s morning, and drink a coffee, and get to the toilet, and then make it here in half an hour? I could.

Bill Powers (@hamletsbb) is tall, and wide through the shoulders, and friendly. I have a father, but not a dad. This makes me susceptible to wishing nice men were my dad, and despite Bill being not a lot older than me, this is how I feel. His essay, Hamlet’s Blackberry, came from the observation that he was critiquing media, but leaving out the devices themselves. He saw people reviewing new gadgets and all the fabulous things they could do, but not discussing their impact. “The more I got connected digitally the more I felt my focus narrow down. People of all ages were saying that the more connected they were, the more they felt the rhythm of their life was changing in some fundamental way, that their attention had become scattered.”

I have felt this too. About ten weeks ago I had a poem accepted for publication in a Melbourne Poet’s Union anthology called In Their Cups. I got the news in an email. It was such a feelgood moment that I’ve been checking my email in hyperdrive ever since. I’m the rat that got some cheese when I pressed a button. There’s no more cheese, but I can’t stop pressing. And it’s not just email I check. There’s all my ongoing Words with Friends games to keep up with. And Twitter, I should check that (hang on I’ll just tweet about irony). And Facebook – I should let my friends know I’m at the MWF and having a great time. I arrive back in my body, in ACMI’s Studio 1, to hear Matthew Ricketson asking this:

How do you live happily in a digital world, but also deal with the burden?

“It’s the conundrum of connectedness. In history there have been moments like this one, for example the invention of the printing press, where everything changes, and people have a sense of drowning in information. Life in the crowd. Connective technologies draw us closer to everybody else in the world. We’ve been so trained by the screen and our attention is divided so thinly. What I had to do was open up a gap between my digital life and myself.” William’s glass of water is almost empty, but I haven’t seen him drink. He seems like someone I’d like to know. I’ll just look him up he’s sure to be on Twitter. Follow. Great. Check email: spam, a new follow from MWF retweeting my tweet, someone on freecycle with an offer of one hundred red bricks.

Stories about digital life are bubbling in me. A loved one who was staying in our bungalow and couldn’t sleep. She was convinced that her iPad would be able to help her, but was too far away from the house to pick up our wireless connection. So she walked into our freezing and pitch black backyard at two o’clock in the morning to search the app store. Or Monkey crying every time I take my phone back. “But I really really LOVE that phone”. He’s been playing since he was one, and long ago mastered the swipe and pinch. Or being in the doctor’s surgery last week and noticing that seventy five percent of the people in the waiting room were interfacing with smart phones, and wondering if we were all, already, cyborgs (Donna Haraway eat your heart out).

Then he played this ad. It gave me shivers and made me cry (not the first time that’s happened at this festival). Then this quote from a keynote address at a university: “Turn off your computer. You’re actually going to have to turn off your phone and discover all that is human around you.”

At Bill’s house they call it the vanishing family. They all arrive in the lounge room at night, and then disappear to their various screens within ten minutes to “check something”. So they have the internet Sabbath. They turn off the household modem on Friday night, and turn it back on on Monday morning. I can feel myself filled with dread and defensive bargaining, reminiscent of when I was contemplating giving up smoking. The first few weekends they were totally lost. They wandered aimlessly around the house, went to their screens, and sagged when they discovered they could not disappear. “As time went by it got easier, but there were also incredible benefits. Eye contact came back. Minds slowed down on the weekends. Being right here right now. Present. Connected. Really alive. Showing up for your life. Some of that carried over when we went back to our digital lives.”

The session finishes. I check my email. Again. I text to say I’ll meet you under the big screen. I walk fast to hold Sparrow while he waves and grins, to eat a sandwich brought from home, to sit with my back in the sun and be fed poffertjes by Monkey, who pronounces the Dutch word perfectly, then kisses me on the cheek. “That’s a purple kiss Mama, because that’s your favourite colour and I missed you. Can I play on your phone now?”

The Age book of the year awards (and a paper cup)

picture of front cover of fiona mcgregor's indelible inkSparrow is awake. We sit down at the very back and down on the stage is Fiona McGregor who won Book of the Year for Indelible Ink. There is also John Tranter and Jim Davidson, but it’s Fiona I want to hear. Sparrow sits on my lap and eats a ham and avocado sandwich and a slice of apple. He smears avocado (why didn’t I pack something neater?) through his eyebrows and down my left arm. The apple slice gets slick with saliva and drops from his hands. I pick it up. It drops. I pick it up. Jim speaks about his work like he was born on the stage. He hitches up his trousers and reveals thin white ankles that he crosses and uncrosses as he speaks. Sparrow stands and looks pleased. Then starts grizzling.

John is talking now about his one hundred and fifty poems and I unclip my bra, even though Sparrow’s not due for a feed. I bare my tattooed back to the volunteers and sound techs and Sparrow settles in for a good ten minutes. Then he’s finished and I give him an empty paper cup. He is sincerely chuffed and makes it known. I start getting pointed looks. Fiona has just begun to speak and I can’t stay. I walk out and Sparrow squeals and investigates the corrugated paper surface. As soon as he’s quiet we go back in. Repeat. Five times. Then it’s over and time to go home to a childcare pickup, fish and beans in the oven, rice on the floor, a lukewarm bath, tea on the couch, and something broken called sleep.