Sometimes it’s hard to know what to write when most of the people you know are experiencing exactly the same thing as you are. For me it’s the same four walls, the same family members, the same walk to the surf club and back — just to check the entire Pacific Ocean hasn’t mysteriously disappeared overnight.
The Bloke, knowing full well that I am generally the family member who jollies everyone else along, deadpanned that I should embrace gratitude during Lockdown.
Then again, he has a point, and I do know I am indeed fortunate.
I am fully vaccinated, and The Bloke not far behind me (though the kids are yet to have a vaccine approved for them).
I am gainfully employed (though my work is being frequently interrupted by helping my children with home schooling).
I am happily married (though my anniversary present to The Bloke this year was booking in his second Pfizer shot).
You see the recurring theme, I’m sure — especially if you have a child in Year 5 and have been working through number patterns and algebra problems with them.
Yes, but —
For every upside, it seems there is an inevitable downside.
I’m trying to go back to the things I have learned from tapping away at the keys in this, my little patch of cyberspace. I’m looking for moments of delight. I’m attempting to put into practice the Divine Qualities I began exploring at the beginning of this year. That said, I also freely admit I have uncharacteristically shelved my project to continue looking into them throughout 2021: if past Lockdown experiences taught me anything, it’s that it’s OK to let go of things if it they are adding pressure to my existence rather than relieving it.
As a family, we’re trying to do things together that make us laugh — like watching old episodes of Travel Guides, which not only lets us explore the world from the comfort or our armchairs, but also has us simultaneously giggling and cringing at the antics of the various participants. For example, we watched the South African episode last night, and while we were in hysterics at some of the commentary during the safari portion of the show, we were downright mystified that some of the travel guides had never heard of Nelson Mandela?
There it is again. Yes, but —
You see my dilemma?
I suspect I am not alone in this predicament, and that many parents across the Northern Beaches, across Sydney, and across Australia are, too.
So taking The Bloke’s advice to heart this time, I have challenged myself to come up with a list (in no particular order) of some of the things that I am purely grateful for — no ifs, no buts, no strings attached.
Baked potatoes and pumpkin. Baked lasagne. Baked apple and rhubarb crumble. Baked anything, really.
A reliable internet connection, Netflix and Spotify.
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy (specifically) and fiction (generally).
Piping hot tea, coffee and showers.
Words, and being able to read them, speak them, write them and wield them.
I suppose, given that in a few weeks it will be fifteen years since we tied the knot, I should add The Bloke to the list too — if only so I can publicly proclaim that I do take his advice from time to time. (Pun deliberate, and Dad-joke worthy.)
I knew surrendering to the doona on Sunday afternoon was a mistake. Naturally, every last one of the weather gods took note of my devil may care attitude to the sunny weather they had provided, and proceeded to drench the Northern Beaches in several of days of rain. Admittedly, there was a splash of variety to said rain: it was either steady and incessant, or squally and hitting when you least expected it, but the fact remains that it was still rain. On the one occasion I actually left the house (for 2 of the 4 allowable reasons under the current stay at home orders), I even drove through pouring rain in bright sunlight…which is a seriously weird experience even when one is not in Lockdown.
Anyway, after a shaky start (replete with yelling from all sides), both of my children appear to have adapted to this new regime reasonably well — which is rather a relief, given The Bloke and I are both working from home in finance-related jobs and Lockdown has conincided with EOFY. Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop have been keeping each other admirably entertained, including boisterous exercise sessions outside and plenty of creative pursuits inside, and have sometimes even remembering to clean up after themselves. Needless to say, I have issued an open invitation to all family members to empty the dishwasher whenever they find it full of shiny, clean crockery and cutlery, but sadly so far only The Bloke has taken me up on this salacious offer. OK…it’s not even remotely salacious, it’s just flipping necessary…
Miss Malaprop and I have indulged in a spot of Lockdown Baking — no, not sourdough — which is hardly surprising as we are both rather fond of bunging things in the oven and being able to eat them in the not too distant future. Spotting a claw of increasingly blackened bananas darkening the kitchen fruit bowl, we made Banana Bread. Not just ANY garden variety banana bread, but Yotam Ottolenghi’s Banana Bread featuring roasted pecans, if you don’t mind, which is why this particular baked offering requires the use of Capitals…so la dee dah..
Recalling her recent online shopping for new jeans, the Thrifty Fictionista has resolved not to bake too much during Lockdown, lest she find herself unable to fit into said jeans, which are yet to wend their way to my doorstop. That has not, however, stopped her from ummm… well, from ordering…a few, no…a largish pile, let’s see… shall we say “several other” things online? They’ve all been necessary purchases, of course, like a lovely tartan woollen blanket. And an iPad case. And two sweatshirts. And the Nespresso pods that are due to arrive this afternoon. You cannot seriously expect me to endure Lockdown with coffee, can you?! Besides, it’s not like I’m rushing to the nearest supermarket to panic buy toilet paper…
So far, despite adding many things to cart when I probably should have said, nay shouted at the top of my lungs: “NO! Begone, tempting online shopping demons of the Interwebs!“, the Thrifty Fictionista is rather proud of herself for not purchasing any more books — with the (exceedingly) permissible exception of some small tomes she sent to New Zealand for a friend’s upcoming birthday. Resisting the seductive siren song of Booktopia and the Book Grocer and all those other sublime online book retailers has not been easy, but I am pleased to announce that managed to apply myself and diligently finished the Nureyev biography (which I struggled to complete, simply because I knew it would have to end inevitably with his demise and that’s not the cheeriest subject matter to confront while unable to freely leave your house for the foreseeable future).
Next, however, the Thrifty Fictionista took her own advice and cracked open the very beautiful (hardbacked and bookmark ribboned) Hilary Mantel box set I had been waiting to devour. Quite honestly, I am relishing every single moment I am spending with Thomas Cromwell in Tudor England.
Right from the opening line of Wolf Hall, the first book, I was entranced all over again:
So now get up…
It’s not such a bad suggestion, and one I probably should have heeded last Sunday instead of allowing the doona to welcome me as its own.
So now get up…
It really did remind me that Lockdown doesn’t have to be all bad. It doesn’t have to mean forgetting to shower on a regular basis, or spending days in your pj’s because you can’t be bothered getting dressed, or lamenting the fact that you can’t do anything.
Because there’s always something to do, somewhere, if you’re willing to look for it.
You may well ask what drinking gin from the cat dish has to do with the Bhagavad Gita…but in this, my second foray into looking at the Divine Qualities, I’m looking into wholesome purities of mind and heart.
Well, this quote from one of my favourite writers, Anne Lamott, may help:
You see, I think most of us aspire to having pure minds and pure hearts, but there are times when what we think and feel doesn’t always reflect the best version of ourselves. Times when we criticise ourselves or others, or when we catastrophise, or when our thoughts descend into worries or jealousies or biases.
For me, this happens on a daily (if not hourly) basis: no matter how much I attempt to fix my mind on thinking the best of every situation and personal encounter I have, or how much I try to be open hearted and open minded, or how much I actively choose to see and experience life as it is without judging it, I fail.
And sometimes I, too, think thoughts so vile they would have Jesus (or Buddha or any other spiritually enlightened historical figure you care to mention) reaching for a cat dish full of gin.
I suspect, however, that the entire point of embracing wholesome purity of mind and heart as a Divine Quality is to keep aiming for it — after forgiving ourselves when we inevitably, humanly, fall short.
As I write this, I am waiting for a phone call from the hospital to let me know when I can collect my husband, because The Bloke had an altercation with his own surfboard this morning (on his first wave of the day, no less), split his lip and has required surgery. It has been a valuable experience in learning to let go, not knowing all the details of what has happened, how he is going, or when he can come home.
Today’s events have also reminded me how grateful I am that we have easy access to excellent health care. That The Bloke was so unfazed by what happened that he didn’t need painkillers when he got to Accident and Emergency. That he wasn’t injured more seriously. That because hadn’t eaten breakfast he was able be put straight under general anaesthetic. That a plastic surgeon was already at the hospital and made time to operate at short notice. That we are blessed with friends who took him to A & E, stayed with him until he went into theatre, brought his car home, and have checked in to see how he is going.
Writing, as always, has helped me to stay calm. To stop my monkey mind from taking over. To break the information I know down into small chunks so I can quietly process what has happened and realistically predict what is likely to happen next.
I still may end up drinking gin from the cat dish after The Bloke is safely home, but at least I know that will be entirely by choice, rather than because I’ve let unhelpful thoughts and feelings get the better of me.
And, naturally — because I suspect this is how the universe works — as soon as I have finished writing this, The Bloke has called and told me himself that he is OK.
Folks, I’m still in lockdown as I write this, but am hoping against hope that restrictions will ease tomorrow and we will finally be able to escape the Northern Beaches for the first time since 19 December 2020.
Not surprisingly, escape seems to have been the theme of much of what I consumed on screen in 2020. In my view, desperate times call for comedy, for fantasy, and for distraction – and that’s just what I went for last year. So yes: I watched things like Space Force and allowed my children to binge way too many episodes of Brooklyn 99. But I also needed things to be real, so I devoured (along with most of the TV watching population of the planet) The Last Dance, and also took in Cheer and My Octopus Teacher and other documentaries – even Operation Odessa, from which I am still recovering.
Most of all, now that I reflect on it more deeply, I think much of what I really enjoyed on screen in 2020 revolved loosely around notion of “family” – which, as we all know, is much more about what you make it rather than what you’re born into. I’m very fortunate 2020 brought me closer to my own family than ever before.
So here, in no particular order, is Blue Jai’s Top 5 on Screen for 2020:
The Mandalorian, Season 2 (Disney+)
Can we all just take a minute to acknowledge the genius and greatness of Jon Favreau? The Mandalorian has clearly been such a labour of love for him – and in my view he has triumphed, successfully tying together so many disparate threads from the Star Wars universe, as well creating a thoroughly entertaining series populated with fantastic characters. Our family has loved hanging out together taking in the eight episodes of Season Two, delighting in the developing bond between the Mando and Baby Yoda, watching awesome warrior women like Cara Dune and Fennec Shand kick butt alongside Boba Fett, and screaming with excitement when we finally saw Ahsoka Tano appear on the screen for the first time (as a live action figure, obviously – she was probably the best thing about Star Wars: Clone Wars). And the blockbuster final episode? I want to talk about it so much! But also don’t want to spoil it for anyone…it’s that good.
The Mandalorian has brought us joy in a year tainted by so much…other stuff, and I’m so grateful that the Space Western genre is not only alive and well (complete with masterful musical contributions from Ludwig Göransson), but is thriving in the eminently capable hands of Jon Favreau and his team.
Other than The Mandalorian, I don’t think anything on screen in 2020 has been obsessed over as much by me and my family – especially Marvel Girl – as Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda delivers a virtuoso performance as creator, producer and star of this incredibly successful musical. I have lost count of the number of times we’ve watched it or listened to the soundtrack, and lines from the show seem to sneak into our everyday parlance with astounding regularity. The libretto is astonishing – as is Daveed Diggs, but that is a whole other story. Watching this masterwork prompted me to post a note on my kitchen wall reminding me (and the other people who live here): You have as many hours in the day as Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The Bureau, Seasons 1-5 (SBS On Demand)
Let’s change it up a bit, shall we? Once the world (well, my world) became a bit less tense in 2020, I was able to take in content that was more suspenseful. By this I mean that I binged five entire seasons of the brilliant French production The Bureau and loved every minute of it. This spy drama has it all – a superb cast, great characters, gripping plotlines, realistic engagement with current events, the works. You will probably recognise Mathieu Kassovitz, who plays main protagonist, Guillaume Debailly alias Paul Lefebvre alias Malotru, from the cult classic movie Amelie. Here, however, Kassovitz portrays a deep cover agent for the DGSE who is unable to let go of a former love when he is unexpectedly recalled to Paris, setting off a chain of events which have repercussions for him, his lover (played by the luminous Zineb Triki), his daughter, his colleagues, and many others. I sincerely hope Season 6 is in the works – I’d watch it in a heartbeat.
A Suitable Boy(Netflix Series)
I watched a number of shows with a subcontinental theme this year, including Never Have I Ever (which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially since it is narrated by John McEnroe and also features one episode narrated by Andy Samberg) and Indian Matchmaker (which I found hilarious and heartbreaking all the same time). But in the latter part of the year I was delighted to discover something Indian with which I was far more familiar: A Suitable Boy.
I have a rather large soft spot for A Suitable Boy, not least because I had the privilege of meeting Vikram Seth, who wrote the book upon which this show is based, when I was seventeen. It was the first time I’d met a famous published author, and my copy of A Suitable Boy, which he generously inscribed for me, remains a treasured possession – even though The Bloke jokes that it could double as a door stop, such is its size.
The Netflix television adaptation of A Suitable Boy necessarily leaves out some of the incredible detail which characterises Seth’s book, but it remains full of colour and life and tackles the personal and the political in greater depth that I had imagined it would. At its core it’s a love story, but it is so much more besides. Tanya Maniktala does a great job as Lata Mehra, the main character, but for my money Tabu nearly steals the show as Saeeda Bai. This six part series is well worth watching.
The Queen’s Gambit(Netflix Series)
I was tossing up a number of options for my fifth choice, but TheQueen’s Gambit managed to pip several other contenders at the post because of its polish. The production values of this Netflix show (another screen adaptation of a novel, this time by Walter Tevis) are consistently high, and the attention to detail is second to none. I have next to no interest in chess, but this series kept me hooked – probably in part because of the attention to detail paid to the fashion, décor and music of the time in which the series is set. Add to this Anya Taylor-Joy’s mesmerising turn as Beth Harmon, and throw in the ‘chess family’ she ends up with, and I was left well satisfied.
Under the category of Highly Commended for 2020 I would have to include:
Umbrella Academy Seasons 1 & 2 (Netflix) – more escapism and quirky takes on “family”, not to mention the zany brilliance of Robert Sheehan as Klaus;
Douglas(Netflix) – Hannah Gadby’s masterful follow up to Nanette, in which she tells you exactly what she’s going to do to you and you still laugh as she does precisely what she told you she would;
The Highwaymen(2019 Netflix Film) – in which Woody Harrelson and Kevin Costner take on Bonnie and Clyde (I particularly love the way this movie was shot, without showing the faces of Bonnie and Clyde until they are finally ambushed);
Freeman(ABC iView) – introducing Cathy Freeman’s historic gold medal win at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games to my children was a more emotional experience than I ever expected.
That’s a wrap of Blue Jai’s Top 5 On Screen for 2020 – stay tuned for the next episode, in which my trusty alter ego, the Thrifty Fictionista, tackles Blue Jai’s Top 5 Books.
It’s been a while since I put fingers to keys, and I’m a little overwhelmed by how different a place the world has become in the past six weeks. These here are crazy times, to quote an old Boom Crash Opera song — which no doubt shows my age (but also proves I’m not old enough to be included in a high risk category based on the number of years I’ve been kicking around the planet).
My own life has had a series of challenges lately, which explains my absense from my little patch of cyberspace, but that does not mean I have taken a hiatus from pursuing the delightful in my world and life. In fact, I’ve become so much more attuned to things that bring delight that I have had to start differentiating between delights and things that make me happy (like hearing my kids laughing together) and occasions of pure, unadulterated joy (such as the moment my beautiful little blue car was driven down the ramp at the Smash Repairers after being fixed, looking and smelling like it had come straight from the sales showroom).
Dark days demand delights, I say!
So rather than limiting myself to a top five or something, here (in no particular order) is a list of truly delightful things I have encountered in the past six weeks or so — many of which you are welcome to avail yoruselves of even if you are in quarantine.
Listening to Whole Albums Uninterrupted
We all have favourite songs and tunes we could listen to on repeat for days. But every now and then, it is an absolute delight to listen to a whole album in its entirety: just as the artist wanted you to hear it. In the age of the playlist the album is easily forgotten — but you can bet your last roll of toilet paper the artist who recorded it thought long and hard about which songs made the final cut and what their sequence should be on a record. Here are some albums I think benefit from listening to uninterrupted:
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — Ghosteen
Max Richter — Recomposed: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons
Thom Yorke — Anima
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Anything at all by Christine and the Queens
There are so many more…and they can transform doing the ironing or anything else uninspiring into something delightful if you let them.
Snippets of Song Lyrics
On the flip side (SUCH a bad pun it’s almost delightful), snippets of song lyrics sometimes stop me in my tracks and produce a moment of sheer delight. Here’s one I rediscovered lately when listening to the Foo Fighters’ song “Times Like These”…
I, I’m a new day rising I’m a brand new sky To hang the stars upon tonight
What an image! Love, love, love it. Delighful.
Anyone with hair will tell you that the best thing about having a cut and colour is having your head massaged when they wash your hair at the salon. It’s deeply relaxing, a true act service, and an unmitigated delight. Enough said.
I used to joke my kids know the only two things I have regularly delivered to our house are books and wine, but since I’ve ditched the drink the only things likely to turn up on our doorstep are boxes from Booktopia. Book deliveries are, to my mind, full of the promise of good times to come — particularly becase they are also likely to involve my favourite armchair and a cup of tea.
The last delivery I received included the tome that inspired my journey of delight, Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights. Not surprisingly, the volume itself is delightful — it is small enough to hold comfortably in your hands, but not so tiny as to be twee. It’s also beautifully bound in silvery grey, with a lovely slip cover, and contains short essays I want to savour rather than tear through.
Finishing Pride and Prejudice
It is a truth universally acknowledged that children become readers in the laps of their parents…
I still read aloud to my kids. I’ve done so ever since they were newborns and I suspect I will continue to do so for as long as I have literature to share with them and they have the time to hear it. For years now, most of what I have read to them would probably be considered to be above their reading level but which I think they’re capable of understanding. In any case, since we’re reading together they can always ask questions if there are things they don’t comprehend on first hearing.
The last novel we read together was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and I can honestly say that nothing has brought me greater delight in the past few months than hearing both children tell me it was the best book they’d ever read when we finished it. That said, I should qualify that statement by saying I found it equally delightful when my younger child described someone having a colossal dummy spit at school as “doing a Lady Catherine de Bourgh”. Parenting win.
Oh! Delight in a seashell…especially at the tail end of summer. We are so spoilt with our seafood around here, thought in the interests of sustainability we try not to go overboard with our consumption. Even so, The Bloke is and always will be a sucker for a prawn roll — not the variety that looks something like a spring roll, but the kind where you cut open a fresh bread roll, butter it (in most cases generously, in his case obscenely), fill it with freshly shelled prawns and slather those with seafood cocktail sauce. Yum.
Me? I’m an oyster girl through and through, and the Sydney Rocks have been absolutely delectable this year. There is nothing more delightful chilled oysters on a hot day. Like today, even…
So that’s it for the moment, folks. No doubt we will need to indulge in other delights as the world changes around us. Some of these delights are accessible most of the time, others might have to be savoured even more sweetly when they become available again.
In the meantime, stay safe and well, and be kind to each other.
Here comes the second instalment of my Top Five’s for 2019 — movies and television. I should probably preface this by saying that for me, any time I’m sitting in front of a screen without a keyboard is a form of escapism, so I’m not too likely to be using much grey matter when I’m watching. It’s all about being entertained!
So, without further ado, here (in no particular order) are my Top Five great escapes on screen for the 2019.
1. Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker
Now, this one was always going to be on here. It seems like only yesterday that I was wondering whether my kids might be ready to watch the Star Wars movies, and since then they have devoured everything in the universe currently available (though they might not be quite up to date with the most recent episodes of The Mandalorian).
We saw this movie as a family (which always makes it more special) and we all, unequivocally, loved it. After all, outer space could possibly be the greatest escape of all. On a side note, Miss Malaprop was also properly impressed I accurately picked Rey’s parentage within the first ten minutes…
2. Captain Marvel
As a mother of two girls, strong female role models are always high on my lookout list when it comes to movies — Rey in The Rise of Skywalker being a case in point. And while it might seem like completely hyperbolic overload to include two massive blockbusters in this year’s Top Five, I simply could not relegate Captain Marvel to the Highly Commended section.
Ironically, part of what made this movie special for me was that I saw it in Hobart with The Bloke when we’d absconded from Sydney without our two (mostly) cherubic offspring for a long weekend in Tasmania. I will always love the Marvel Universe, and I thoroughly enjoyed Captain Marvel from start to finish — and I was, of course, totally entertained by Goose the Cat/Flerken. Winning.
3. Patrick Melrose
Thought you might need a change of pace…
This TV series was one I would describe as an emotional onslaught of epic proportions. How Benedict Cumberbatch pulled off playing the titualr role so brilliantly — being, as he is, in virtually every scene of the entire production — I will never know. Hugo Weaving’s performance as Patrick’s father is also devastatingly good.
It was difficult to watch Patrick’s life unravel, particularly as the audience is given increasing insight into the unmitigating awfulness of his childhood. What makes it even harder to watch is knowing that the series is based on the semi-autobiograpical novels of Edward St Aubyn. That Patrick persists (for the most part) and attempts to overcome the trauma of his past and the addictions of his present transforms Patrick Melrose into compelling viewing.
The final episode also delivered one of my favourite exchanges of dialogue for the year:
Patrick Melrose: I’ve decided I’m bored of ghosts. I want to see people instead.
Mary Melrose: Oh, I see. OK.
Patrick Melrose: Or is it too late to change my mind?
Mary Melrose: Not at all. After all, that’s what it’s for.
It’s not always comfortable viewing, but well worth the effort.
4. The Crown, Series 3
I, like many others, was loathe to see Claire Foy, Matt Smith and Vanessa Kirby relinquish their roles in the newest series of The Crown, but my fears were unfounded. Olivia Colman is brilliant as Her Maj, and Tobias Menzies (once I had got past seeing him as Black Jack Randall) was equally good as Prince Philip. I was less sure about Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret, but she does cut a suitably tragic figure.
The inclusion of Charles Dance as Lord Mountbatten was a stroke of genius (though it could reasonably be said that the inclusion of Charles Dance in just about anything amounts to a stroke of genius), and I was delighted by the performance of Erin Doherty as Princess Anne — particularly the scene where she sings along to David Bowie’s Starman without losing a modicum of her stiff upper lip.
We all know what’s going to happen in The Crown — let’s face it, it’s recent modern history, so you’d have to have been living under a rock not to — but I was drawn to the way certain key events were portrayed, humanising both the happenings and the Royal Family themselves. I can’t wait for the next series. Not to mention the costumes…
5. Killing Eve, Series 1 and 2
OK, OK…so I was late to the party on this one — but how good is Killing Eve?!
Sandra Oh excels as Eve Polastri, and Jodie Comer turns being the villanous Villanelle into a fine art. Never has being a psychopathic assassin looked so good — or so fashionable — not to mention sounded so incredible (thanks to Comer’s brilliant range of accents).
That this show also features Danish actor Kim Bodnia (who I first encountered in The Bridge) as Villanelle’s handler was an extra treat for me. Bring on Season Three — waiting is so boring!
I watched a bunch of other stuff during the year, including a French show called Chefs which kept me entertained, and (thanks to my kids) more episodes of Nailed It than I would care to recall, and fell asleep during almost every instalment I tried to watch of The Witcher — which probably had more to do with the time of year than with Henry Cavill, and I am resolving to do better in the future.
But I can’t think of anything else that really stood out for me in 2019. No doubt I will as soon as I hit the publish button…but no matter.
Don’t change the channel — next up I’m talking best books of the year.
I’ve been living in a bit of a news vacuum lately, largely because The Bloke and I took the family north to Fraser Island during the recent school holidays and road tripped back via Noosa, Kingscliff and Port Macquarie. It was a nostalgic trip for both of us, particularly as we got to share many childhood memories of summers spent at Fingal Head and Rainbow Bay, separated only by the Tweed River and the many years it would take for us to finally meet.
In all honesty, I can’t say I missed not hearing or reading the news while we were away: in some of the places we stayed mobile coverage was patchy (at best), and I soon discovered it did not take me long to disconnect from the 24 hour news cycle. Instead, I found myself realising how much news — and many other things — have changed since I was a kid. During my childhood, news was something you got from the radio or from a newspaper you were sent to buy from the corner shop.
For me, remembering these things conjures up images of the local Milk Bar, with its signs advertising Streets Icecream (still allowed) and Winfield Blues (before cigarette advertising was banned). Outside there were metal stands displaying the newspaper headlines for the day in big, black block letters, and the door was shrouded with a faded plastic strip curtain — a vaguely successful attempt to keep flies and mosquitoes at bay.
Inside the Milk Bar was an Aladdin’s cave of multicoloured sweets — Redskins, Milkos, Curly Wurlys, long plastic straws filled with sherbert, even fake candy cigarettes (also long since banned). There were Chocolate Paddlepops and Cool Sharks in deep freezer chests, cartons of milk and cans of Passiona in noisy refrigerators, loaves of bread on wire racks, and a bain marie beside the counter containing Chiko Rolls and other dubious delicacies of questionable provenance. A insect zapper cast a weird blue light from the wall behind the register, which was filled otherwise with packets and cartons of cigarettes.
On the floor near the door were the stacks of newspapers, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mirror. I learned the hard way that the copy of the Herald on the top of the pile (which was usually weighed down with half a brick) was always a bit worse for wear. Better to take the second or third one down than to risk Dad getting tetchy about rips. They were huge broadsheet editions — twice the size of today’s paltry offerings — with the TV guide printed on pale blue newspaper (or was it pale pink?) and the form guide on pale yellow. I loved reading Column 8, with all its quirks and urban myths.
I don’t really remember a time when I couldn’t read, since my mother started teaching me when I was about three, but one of the earliest things I recall reading in a newspaper was a huge article about one of the appeals in the Azaria Chamberlain case. Azaria was taken by a dingo at Ayres Rock (now known by its much older name, Uluru) in 1980, when I was four years old, but some of the appeals against Lindy Chamberlain’s conviction were heard in 1983 and 1984, when I was about seven. I devoured that piece of writing with morbid curiosity, simultaneously fascinated by details about camera cases and missing matinee jackets, and horrified by the idea of a mother — anyone’s mother — being in jail.
Our radio, and old National model plugged into a power socket on the kitchen bench, brought news bulletins about the Falklands War, of Prince Charles getting engaged to Lady Di, of petrol strikes and of planes being hijacked in the Middle East. We were always warned to be silent during the news (Dad again), and especially when they read the weather, which often forecast rain on the adjacent ranges. I always wondered as a child where the Adjacent Ranges (or as I heard it, the A-Jason Ranges, which I imagined had been named after one of the kids up the street) were. Perhaps they were near the Snowy Mountains, I thought. Or maybe they were part of the Great Dividing Range? It wasn’t until years later that I corrected my own misunderstanding.
Weirdly, though perhaps not unexpectedly, most of the news stories I remember from childhood were unpleasant reports, not just of Azaria Chamberlain being taken by a dingo but, slightly later, of appalling murders: Anita Cobby, Sallyanne Huckstepp, Samantha Knight. I was intermittently aware of poltical doings — it was hard not to be with Bob Hawke as Prime Minister and Paul Keating as Treasurer. Being an ordinary Australian child, I was also swept along in a running undercurrent of anything related to sport, from the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane in 1982, to the Melbourne Cup every November, to Australia II winning the America’s Cup, to all the times Parramatta appeared in the Rugby League Grand Finals in the 1980s and cemented my undying support for the Eels.
I miss the Milk Bar of my childhood.
There are a few left, here and there, remnants of a world that existed long before I could check breaking news by glancing at my phone.
But what I realise, writing this, is that I don’t miss the Milk Bar itself: I miss the simpler times in which I lived. They weren’t golden days, by any means — my memories of murders and wars and all manner of mayhem make that clear.
They were simpler because I was a child, and did not have to shoulder the adult burden of living in and responding to the world and all its imperfections.
For me, disconnecting from the news means setting that burden down for a while. It means identifying how important it is to preserve, where possible, the simplicity of life for my own children. It means allowing myself to remember the broadsheets and broadcasts of times gone by, to see the many things have changed since then.
And some things, strangely enough, remain just as they always were — just like Chiko Rolls and Passiona.
2014: Tropical Vibes Christmas in hot pink, tangerine and gold.
I’m a happily married woman — let me state that, straight up, seeing as though the title of this post clearly implies otherwise. The Bloke and I have muddled along together for the better part of two decades, and we’re planning to do so for a lot longer yet.
But there are two other men, other than The Bloke, who have made me the happily married woman I am today. Two men who, like my dear husband, have seen me at my best and my worst. Two men who have witnessed me lose it with my kids more times than I would like to admit, but who have also seen those same children grow to be the beautiful, self-sufficient and (mostly) polite creatures they are today. Two men who have have seen my house look like a tornado has just swept through or like a sparkling jewel where everything is clean and in its ever-so-right place.
2015: Traditional Christmas in red and forest green.
And now, dear friends, (sob….choke…splutter) the time has come for these two men to leave me.
These two men — architects of my continued happiness and transformers of my humble home — are, of course, are my Cleaners.
(Apologies if my tears have actually permeated cyberspace and are pouring through whatever screen you are reading this on…)
To be fair, The Cleaners and I have broken up before. There were a few weeks here, sometimes a few months, when they were too busy, or needed a break, or whatever it was — but this time, this time, it’s for real.
Don’t get me wrong.
2016: Nordic Christmas and the first appearance of the Angel Shazza.
I know in my heart the time has come for The Cleaners to move on. Truly.
Just as they have witnessed my kids growing up (OK…and me…they had to see me doing a whole pile of that growing up business, too), I’ve seen them transform, too.
I’ve watched them grow up, get real (other) jobs, ride rocking rollercoasters of relationships, come out, get promoted, break up (luckily that one wasn’t for real), reunite, get clearer and clearer on what they want in life, get promoted again (and again), and go back to studying. I’ve seen them do difficult things, like navigate visa restrictions in the era before marriage equality, and bury parents and loved ones, and do so with grace and courage. I’ve seen them succeed in becoming amazing, well-rounded, successful and brilliant young men.
2017: Tiny “We’re Going to Fiji” tree in rainbow ombre to celebrate Marriage Equality
And I guess that’s where we come to the heart of the matter: they are not The Cleaners any more.
They’re truly awesome human beings, one of whom is even more obsessed with Christmas (specifically: themed decorating) than I am.
Seriously — we begin discussing possible colour schemes in October and send each other slow-motion video reveals of our fully decorated trees…and let’s not even get into our long-standing debate over real versus artifical…
And that is why this post is adorned with the trees of the past five Christmases in all their radiant glory, under which there has always been a gift for each of them, and there always will be.
Because they’re not The Cleaners any more. They’re part of the family.
2018: Thrice-decorated (because it fell) gigantic tree in orange, turquoise, silver and lime.
I have been saying NO to my children for a very long time.
Despite my best efforts to be a mother who phrases things positively, explaining what I want them to do rather than what I would like them to stop doing, there has been one small, though significant thing I have been saying no to repeatedly — pretty much ever since they learned how to walk and talk.
No, we are NOT getting a pet.
No, not a cat.
No, not a dog either.
No, not even a fish.
And it’s not like I haven’t had good reasons for saying no. In fact, both my girls can quote you, chapter and verse, the many and detailed reasons I have provided to them over the past nine years (since our last pet passed on) why we would not be getting a replacement four legged friend any time soon.
There have even been occasions — usually when they have been particularly persistent in their pestering for a pet of their own — when I felt tempted to start spounting the lines from Labyrinth Sarah uses to defeat the Goblin King. Go on, I would think to myself, try me: “My will is as strong as yours and my kingdom as great…YOU HAVE NO POWER OVER ME!”
But the thing is, as it turned out that one small creature DID have power over me.
During the Easter holidays, I softened my hardline just a smidge: I finally relented and informed the girls that they would be allowed to get a small tank and some fish. They would need to be in charge of cleaning the aquarium, feeding and caring for their new finned friends. They also needed to work out how much everything would cost and stick to a budget when making their initial purchases — gravel, tank decorations, the fish themselves, the works.
And then, while we were at the pet store, Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop just happened to venture down to the far end of the shop to a couple of cages containing animals who were up for adoption. They might even have “borrowed” my phone to take pictures of said creatures…or, more accurately, of one in particular.
We went home, set up the tank, washed the gravel, positioned all the plants and the hula hut decoration, got the filter and lights going and and began treating the water so it was ready for fish.
Later that night, once the kids were in bed, I found a series of photographs on my phone. They weren’t great pictures, because many of them had the bars of a cage featuring prominently in the foreground. But beyond the bars was a small, furry feline with tabby/tortishell markings, spectacular whiskers, beautiful eyes and an elegant tail that resembled a plume.
She was one year old. Desexed, microchipped, vaccinated. And she was a stray.
Next morning, I woke up well before the kids. Without even meaning to, or realising what I was doing, I picked up my phone off my bedside table and began scrolling through the images of the small, furry creature who was most definitely not a fish.
The Bloke rolled over, wondering what on earth had possessed me to start checking my phone at 5:00am.
Ah, he said. I thought this might happen. I saw her too.
So, as it turns out, we returned to the pet store that day and came home not with fish, but with a small and ever so delightful cat we have named Tauriel.
And since we got her — or since I said YES — I have made some interesting discoveries.
I have yelled less. We have all been calmer, and made an effort to get along with each other better. We have tried to make Tauriel feel at home, and she was rewarded us with her madcap toy mouse-capades and her speed scampering up and down the hallway, with purrs and playful bites and with the joy only an animal can bring.
The many and varied reasons why we should not have got a four-legged friend remain, and will continue to do so, but after eight or nine years of saying NO, Tauriel appeared at precisely the right time for me to change my formerly made-up mind.
A rescue cat, is Tauriel. And even though we may have rescued her from an uncertain future, I suspect we all feel she has rescued us, too, and that we are as lucky to have her as she is to have us.
And the fish? Well…we finally got them too — and Tauriel takes great delight in watching Mahalo, Taco, Nacho and Mrs Norris swimming around in their tank. So do we.
Glenn was 57 years young and taken from this world way too soon, but in the past couple of weeks I’ve come to appreciate the lessons of his life — lived to the full, replete with positivity and passion for the things he loved.
I didn’t know Glenn all that well, but whenever I did catch up with him he was always affable and ready with a story and a laugh. He gave anything a go, particularly if it had wheels. He thoroughly enjoyed being in the bush. He loved his family and adored his wife.
In the days that followed his funeral, we found ourselves coming closer together as an extended family, recognising in the various activities we were doing the things Glenn would have got a kick out of. He would have loved The Bloke surprising us when, after a strenuous hike down to the bottom of Wollangambie Canyon, he pulled an inflatable dinghy out of his backpack so anyone without a wetsuit could have float on the cool, clear water. (Well, to be more accurate, it was near-freezing water, but it was still at least twenty-seven kind of fun).
Later, around the campfire, we recalled the curly haired larrikin who was known at various times to have sported a beard as bushy as Ned Kelly’s. The air was full of the smell of woodsmoke, toasting marshmallows, and the sound of kids’ happy shouts. The howling of the wild dogs beneath the escarpment wouldn’t have send Glenn hightailing it inside like it did us, but once safely ensconced back inside we raised a glass or two of Bundy and coke in his honour and told stories about him crossing the Nullabor on a motorbike with a side car (allegedly filled only with a case of beer).
Glenn might be gone, but the tales — even though many of them are true — will only get taller now that he has. He might not be here to tell us we’re a bunch of rabbits, but we’ll know exactly when he would have. The irony of him being taken from us too soon when he was often rather more than fashionably late for everything would not have been lost on him.
And when the going gets tough, as it inevitably does from time to time, we will be able to recall the bravery with which he approached the end of his life. I’m guessing we will always be able to find Glenn somewhere, maybe in the sound of the wind in the trees, or the sight of a stretch of open road, and we’ll hear him urging us onwards, ever onwards.