Disappointment Down Under

by Alissa

Back in August, Ace and I had a video chat where he was even more animated than usual. Not only was Australia “Amazing!”, he had found something that he knew that even I, with my hard-to-please/hard-to-disappoint disposition, would be excited about.

Ace: Do you want me to tell you, or keep it a surprise? This is SO good!

Me: Tell me, please. I need something to look forward to.

Ace: Michael Ondaatje is giving a public lecture here September 20th! I just saw it on the university website!

Me: Michael Ondaatje is coming to Newcastle? WE HAVE TO GO SEE HIM!

Ace: I’ll figure it out, we’ll get front row seats. Whatever it takes!

And I was deeply, truly, excited. For the next few weeks, whenever I would get down about the long wait to see Ace again, or tired of the hassle of moving, or overwhelmed by the thought of going someplace where nothing was familiar, I would pull out the thought of going to see Michael Ondaatje and warm myself in its glow.

Michael Ondaatje. (!) I don’t get a lot of literary crushes, but Michael Ondaatje has my full attention. Even when I don’t believe him, I want to believe him because his writing is so beautiful. I spent months obsessing over his memoir, Running in the Family, for my Master’s thesis.

It is always a gamble, going to see writers whose work I admire. What if they have a weird voice, or read something mediocre, or have an unnerving prosthetic eyeball? But Michael Ondaatje seemed worth the risk.

Michael Ondaatje! I lived in Toronto for six months and never so much as saw him on the street, and now he’s coming to Newcastle!

Thomas the Tank Engine? Michael Ondaatje will make up for at least a dozen hours of that.

Michael Ondaatje! Maybe Newcastle isn’t the end of the earth after all. 

And so it went.

Until about 10 days ago.

It’s taken me that long to recover sufficiently to be able to tell you what I’m about to tell you.

Ace came home looking glum that night after attending a work seminar–something about how to have a highly effective career as a B-grade scientist. It wasn’t the reality of this new stage of his work life pressing in on him. No. There was something else bothering him. During the session, the guy giving the talk pointed out that great talent doesn’t always translate into academic success. One of the examples he gave was none other than Michael Ondaatje, who despite his immense creativity and excellent body of work, couldn’t get tenure at the University of Toronto.

Ace, his usual chipper self, had piped up at that point, “You know, he’s coming here next week! My wife’s been looking forward to seeing him for ages.”

Then came the blow.

One of his colleagues explained, “No. That’s Michael Ondaatje from the history department.”

That night I indulged my first deep wave of self pity since coming here.

This was even worse than the first surprise of our marriage: All hints pointed to him taking me to the river for a swim. He took me to Walmart for shower curtain hooks instead. In the current scenario, my excitement at the prospect of hearing Michael Ondaatje may even have eclipsed the extent of my loathing of Walmart.

And then I thought, maybe I will go to this lecture anyway and give Other Michael Ondaatje a chance, even if he doesn’t turn up until the bottom of page 3 of the google search results. It’s not his fault his parents picked a perennially popular first name for him, or that he’s young, from Australia, and hasn’t written any best sellers. Maybe it’s hard to be him, you know, trying to make a career for himself with a used name. I imagined him as Michael Bolton in Office Space, about to lose his job, telling the efficiency consultants, “You, you know, you can just call me Mike.” I had to go see him.

The day of the lecture dawned. Octavia came down with her first Australian head cold and glommed onto me like a limpet. I was still going. In the morning, our container of household goods arrived. I was still going. In the afternoon, O skipped her nap. Ace made sad eyes at me over the giant pile of unsorted boxes. I was still going.

In a pause between emptying boxes and fixing dinner, I found the abstract for the talk, “Clinging to Guns and God”: Political Conservatism in the Age of Obama. It was probably really smart and insightful, but the last thing I wanted to hear about was the tea party and the state of politics in America. I could stay home and get that on Facebook. I could stay home and take care of my sick child. I could stay home and drink wine with Ace from our own glasses instead of jam jars. I could stay home and go to sleep in my own bed for the first time in two-and-a-half months with my assumption about living in blissful ignorance at the opposite end of the earth intact.

Since we’re all marooned here in Newcastle, I’ll catch Other Michael Ondaatje another time.