Happytown

UnknownWhen my nephew turned three, I gave him a book called The Chimpanzees of Happytown, by one of my favourite children’s authors, Giles Andreae.

It is a magical, rhyming tale of a Chimpanzee who moves to Drabsville, plants a forbidden seed and eventually transforms the entire city into a colourful, carefree Happytown.

I never knew what an apt story it was for this happy little chap, until last weekend, when he visited Melbourne town for his 10th birthday.

It was his first interstate trip as an unaccompanied minor, for two nights and an unspecified outing with his Aunt.

Melbourne being known for its gloom, we were expecting another week of rain. But by the time J got off the plane, the sun was out and the forecast had been changed.

“You brought the sun with you!” we said, not knowing how true that would turn out to be.

It was a perfect Sunday.

After a bike ride to the local skate park, where I was instructed to record every jump until he got it right…

…we took a one hour ferry ride to the city.

His exuberance at the sights was unexpected.

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“Has Dad seen this?!” J wanted to know.

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Before long, he had wrestled the camera from my hands.

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I think he hoped to do a direct transfer from his brain to Dad’s.

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We pulled up outside the Arts Centre just as my camera battery died…

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…and then we were off to see the Flying Fruit Fly Circus, a theatrical production by kids aged 8 to 18, about a girl with a circus hidden under her bed.

Following the show, filled with wonder and ice-cream, J was ready to dance all the way home to Happytown.

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Aunty Larns, have you seen the movie Dumb Ways to Die? (click the pic to see it)

Debriefing on the way to the airport the next morning, I was surprised by the vision he had of my city.

If you had asked me, I would have told you it is dark and gloomy, and everyone wears black.

That Melbourne has forgotten its roots in a drive for glamour and opulence. And other less flattering things.

But my nephew saw a city full of colour and art, nice historical buildings mixed in with interesting new ones, factories, ships and lots of different things to see and do.

He left me with a smile on my face, and a resolve to get out more and find the colour in my world.

Have a Happy Easter, everyone!

What colourful things do you have planned these holidays?

Different kind of Buzz

Two weeks after the event, the only person left who’s interested in what I did for New Year’s Eve is my hairdresser.

Why on earth would I choose to spend a sober New Year with my nephews, niece and their father? She wants to know.

Fair question. I wondered the same thing when we got to the family fireworks only to discover there WERE NO RIDES. Followed by sulks and ungracious moans of boredom.

Unfazed, even, by the upturned hearts that kissed the sky.

“I’m going to send the little shits home after breakfast,” I complain to Ms over coffee the next morning.

She gently tells me how I CAN’T DO THAT on New Year’s Day. More sulks.

Instead, the offer is to take them to Scienceworks. As long as they eat all their breakfast. Which, luckily for them, they do.

But when it comes to getting dressed, anyone would think this is a new concept.

“I don’t want to brush my hair,” says one.

“I want to wear my onesie,” echo two.

“You can’t wear your onesie to Scienceworks, and we won’t be going anywhere without your hair brushed,” proclaims Almighty Aunt.

Long pause.

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Hey look! Is that Dad’s head on a platter?

The middle one pipes up.

“But why? Sometimes, it’s nice just to be messy,” he says, one leg aimlessly kicking the air from the length of couch he’s claimed.

No denying he’s my nephew, I think, as Ms embarks on a long explanation about how, when we’re at home with people who know and love us, it’s okay to be messy. But out there, where people don’t know us, all they have to go on is how we look. And if you’re messy and smelly, they might not like you.

They might even be mean to you.

Silence.

“I’m going to go get dressed,” he says. And they all shuffle off to find the hairbrush.

And therein lies the answer. Make the most of them while they still want to be socialised (plenty of time for drinking after that…).

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done on New Year’s Eve?

Reunion

It’s been a month of important dates – birthdays and anniversaries, culminating in a family reunion. With my mother and her twin turning 70, and my brother turning 40, our families got together for the first time in a decade. In ten years, we lost one and gained nine, bringing our number up to 25.

After two nights eating, sleeping, cooking, laughing, crying and reminiscing under one roof, we all dispersed back to our busy lives. Months of planning and, suddenly, there’s nothing left but a sensory impression of what was…

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There is something non-linear about reunion.

Once removed

As if all the parts, once removed, don’t reassemble how they were.

Your place

You’re home and yet, you don’t quite know your place.

Bending reality

There’s a bending of reality.

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A girl pointing the finger.

Start

Where do we start?

Many a slip

There’s many a slip in our perception

What once was

Of What Once Was versus What Is.

Site shift

Site shift.

Family

Family.

Memories

Memories playing tricks.

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What we thought was locked in the museum

Museum

Reappears.

Passage secret

Is there a passage secret to

Diminish and ascend

The way that we diminish and ascend?

Fetch

We fetch the ghosts of our past

Washed up

But find ourselves washed up

East of the mulberry tree

East of the mulberry tree.

Plastic world

Plastic people, in a plastic world.

Shared weight

We laugh and, under a shared weight, ask

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For more information about the images, click here.

Sketching Memories

Since my loyal blogging buddy passed away, I have to confess to inspiration having been in short supply.

Left to my own devices, I’d have put the fictional Pepi aside for a future never-never date, and wallowed quietly alone.

Instead, I found myself mid-way through illustrations for Book 2, with an artist waiting to be paid, and a crazy goose unleashed upon the world.

The show must go on!

At first, I felt guilty and disturbed.  But as the lines between fiction and reality blurred, there came a peace.

It’s as though he is still here with me, in the fullness of his youth – and I am comforted.

The process of illustrating Pepi has had its challenges.  No matter how many times you rearrange words on a page, all you have in the end is an approximation of the picture you might like to draw.

With very few photos to reference, the question remains how to convey the pictures that exist inside your head?

To this end, I’ve been fortunate to work with a very talented illustrator, who is not insulted by my lame attempts at storyboarding.

Instead, with a little magic, she has transformed the vision of a shy, dorky everygirl and some squiggles on a page…

…into Mona, an unpretentious city girl…

…a peppy little puppy…

…and precious fragments of shared memory.

Anyone who knew Pepi, and cared to see past the exuberance of a little yappy dog, saw in him an undeniable spirit of love and positivity.

It was his sixteen year long gift to me.

Was it unconditional?  Hell no!  Like any feeling creature, he had his pet grievances and gripes.  It’s just that he refused to be quelled.  (And I can tell you, he would not have wanted to be kept inside a drawer…)

So, in honour of his unquellable spirit, I’ve decided to set a date for the launch of Hello Pepi.

Fingers crossed, ready or not, Books 1 to 3 will be out on 16 November.

There will be plenty of opportunities to grab a free copy, for more than anything, I want to share his joie de vivre with you.

If you could sketch a memory of the joy of life, what would it be?

Ooroo, Grandma

The gulf left behind by Pepi’s passing has been so much greater than I expected.  It’s made me realise how lucky I am that, of the many goodbyes in my life, few have been permanent.

The only person I’ve lost that mattered to me was my Grandma, when I was eight.  She was seventy-one.  Defeated by cancer.

I remember being woken by my older brother and sister, and delivered the overnight news; their worry, and the feeling of numbness that gripped.

It was only as the coffin lowered, to the solemn recitation of “Ashes to ashes…”, that the numbness turned to grief.

After that, fragments of memory.

My other Nanna, the one I didn’t care for, making a triumphant show of comforting me.

At the wake, the older kids across the room staring at my reddened eyes as I refused to eat.

The feeling I was the only one crying.

The vow never to let them see me cry again.

I was her favourite, they always liked to say.  But that wasn’t how I saw it.  She was simply my favourite.  My most important person in the world.

Grandma was the only person I was allowed to escape to visit for a sleepover – which I did as often as I could.

She’d let me sit up with her in bed and watch A Country Practice.

Afterwards, I would kiss her goodnight and tiptoe off to my own room filled with the scary shadows of overstuffed brown wardrobes.

I’d wake to the sound of ABC wireless news, the smell of porridge and warm toast and wood smoke.

She’d talk to me as I followed her around in the garden, and take me visiting with her friends, where I’d be offered tea with Iced Vovo.

There were the precious moments of laughter and consternation that we shared.

The night she dozed off, falsies  in the glass beside her, when my light goodnight kiss provoked a startled gummy scream.

The morning she couldn’t get the potbelly burning, and smoke billowed, and the comedy of it all tickled me with unappreciated giggles.

The day, as we walked on the beach, Grandma stumbled in the sand and we were uncontrollably struck by the moment’s hilarity.

But, perhaps best of all, was Trudy – the fluffy, yappy Pomeranian.

The rest of the family hated how she doted on that dog.  How Grandma talked to her (as if she understood!).  How she hand fed her human ‘tidbits’.  And cleaned her teeth.  And gave her the run of the house (not to mention everybody else’s).

But it all seemed perfectly natural to me.  And so I found myself idolising the ground my Grandma walked on.

I dressed myself in my signature yellow-rimmed spectacles (glass removed), and marched about with a stuffed toy dog under my arm, parroting Grandma’s every word.

“Ooroo,” she would say from her back step, Trudy under arm (‘Ooroo’ is ancient Aussie for goodbye).

Much to everyone’s irritation, I also honed a perfect imitation of Trudy’s bark.

To this day, whenever I say something not to my sister’s liking, her favourite refrain is “Oh, you old Grandma.”

Perhaps, if she had lived long enough, I might have come to see her as the crotchety old bag the others always claim she was.  But, from the rose coloured perspective of an eight year old, I can imagine worse things to be called.

Once, a local Aboriginal elder explained to me how children inherit the totems and characteristics of their grandparents.  It is this relationship that shapes them, and is considered much more important than the child-parent bond.

As I look back, this seems to resonate.  My independent Grandma and her little dog.  Is this why, as a young adult, I found myself bringing home a Pepi pup?  A replay of that little girl running around with a stuffed toy dog under her arm – only this time for real?

It seems silly, but I am strangely comforted.  As though she’s with me as I say “Ooroo”.

Do you have a special Grandparent?  How have they left traces of themselves in you?

My Hard Yakka Dad

Some of you may not realise (I know I didn’t until yesterday!) that Father’s Day in Australia happens on the first Sunday of September.  Which means in two days time!

It’s a bummer, really, because I had this Father’s Day all worked out since Susie Lindau’s post My Father the Madman back in June.  (If you haven’t joined her blog yet, it’s more than worth the ride… :) )

The problem is, the mail usually takes longer to get to Tasmania than it does to the other side of the world.  And Dad doesn’t have a computer.  So now it looks like you’re going to get this before he does…I won’t tell if you don’t?

In my comment on Susie Lindau’s post, I made the mistake of saying my Dad was a ‘bit of’ an amateur inventor.  I didn’t expect her to be interested, but she was, so now I have to confess it was a ‘bit of’ a white lie.

My Dad is not so much an amateur inventor as an all-round fix-it man.  He is a builder by trade, and what that means is – even if he has not an ounce of engineering knowledge – he can figure out how stuff works.

Back when I was still young enough to be admiring, my Dad built a tractor-powered saw mill from second hand chunks of metal (that’s my technical term for it).  He welded it together, sharpened the saws by hand and it all worked like a dream.

I LOVED working on that saw mill.  I just wanted to be one of the boys, and Dad – desperate for all the help he could get – would let me play along.

I’d hang about on building sites and wood chops…

…even in the veggie patch…(actually, that’s not me, it’s a scarecrow :) )

..and all the while Dad (and Mum, of course) were hard at work.

Maybe he could have been an inventor.  But there were never enough hours in the day for my Hard Yakka Dad.  (Hard Yakka is Aussie for ‘hard work’.  It’s also a brand of tough guy workwear.  Check out the video).

Even when we went camping, it was work, work, work for Dad…

And when eventually he got to stop?  Well.  No words necessary.

Over the years, we’ve had our share of differences. But the great thing about growing up is that you get to see your parents as people.  With stories, and a history of their own.

Dad, the eldest of seven kids, left school early to help his parents on the farm.

Later, he relinquished a Pacific Island dream at their request, and came home to build their house.

The rest, as they say, is history.

“What’s done is done,” he says. “No use dwelling on the past.”

But history is important.  It’s what makes us who we are.

Somehow, in its knowledge, anger dissolves.  It reveals a child’s disappointment in discovering the humanity of those we love.

Today, when I go home, Dad likes to take me on a tour of the homes he’s built.

He’s a stalwart of the industry.  One of the few remaining all-rounders.  Worth his weight in gold – they say.

Except Dad, out of some old-school sense of modesty, continues to charge less than half the going rate.

But at least he’s starting to enjoy himself.

Maybe one day soon, he’ll accept that retirement means ‘stop work’.

In the meantime, I’ll just love him for the Dad he is.

Wishing Happy Father’s Day to all the Hard Yakka Dad’s out there.

Maybe you know of one yourself?  Or maybe you, too, had a moment of discovery, when you finally saw the man?  Please share….

Dogs, Children and Toy Envy

This topic was prompted by the angry outburst of a young woman who declared she was not that different to the dogs she trains.  I was impressed by the passion of her statement; one that some would consider an insult to their own intelligence.

It’s a question I am usually hesitant to voice on account of my family’s screw-faced disdain for four-legged things.  But since blogging has given me an emboldened sense of self-confidence, I thought I’d ask it here.

How different, really, are dogs from us?  Can they legitimately be called a child substitute?

A couple of years ago I happened upon a documentary that gave me all the ammunition I would ever need in defending my pooch spoiling ways.

On account of the incredible smarts of a dog in Austria, The Secret Life of the Dog puts a canine’s intellectual capacity on par with a child aged two or three.

This was proven, not only by the undeniable size of the dog’s vocabulary, but by it’s remarkable skills of toy recognition.  (It’s amazing what a bit of positive reinforcement can do.)

While the skeptics among us are busy squabbling over the science, let me just say I’ve personally witnessed two types of sentient being in no doubt whatsoever of the validity of this claim.

You guessed it.  Dogs and children.

The Christmas before Pepi’s brain broke, we went camping.  Best Christmas ever.

Next to us was a cute family of four, also trying to escape their relatives.

On Christmas afternoon, the little four year old girl wandered over for a bit of Christmas present show and tell.  The books went by without a whimper.  But then she made the mistake of bringing out the sparkling unicorn.

It might have been bigger than Pepi, but as far as he was concerned, that toy was, “Mine, all mine!”

The more she snatched it out of reach, the more incensed he became until, alas, poor Pepi had to be locked away in the tent and reprimanded.

Upon my return, her pronouncement that Pepi was a “naughty boy!” was disproportionate to the size and status of a little scrap of dog.  It smacked, just a tad, of triumph over rival.

Then there was the time my Neephs came to visit.

“He’s got soooooo many toys!” declared my three year old niece, and then the kids closed in and counted…one…two…three…SIX toys!

“Such a nice big bed!!” she squealed.  “I wish I had a bed like that!”

She would have climbed in with him, were it not for the self-protective yelp that Pepi gave.  The yelp of one’s belongings under siege.

To everyone’s credit, most of the kids I know are very good with Pepi – and likewise, he with them.  But there is something about the way they interact.

Some illuminating, though slightly worrying experiments on foxes in Siberia, show the way we have bred dogs to be frozen at an infantile stage of life.

Were it not for this, our dear little pups would be far more aggressive, cynical and, funnily enough, a lot less cute looking.

Which brings me to the conclusion of this little tale.

There are two resounding complaints I hear from a different brand of silver fox:

(1) That they don’t see their grown-up children enough.

(2) That their children didn’t turn out quite the way they hoped they would.

So here we have it, the real reason why people have dogs:

They never grow up or leave home.  They rarely disappoint.  And most of all, they love us cutely and unquestioningly for their entire life :)

It makes me wonder if this is also an unconscious reason behind the cosseting or curtailing of our teens.  Who is it that really isn’t ready to let go?

Of course, Dr Peter Rowley-Conwy also raises the question of parasitic relationships, but I think I’ll quit while I’m ahead.

The moral of the story is, who could ask for a better child substitute? In the words of Dr Morten Kringelbach “What we get in return is probably sometimes much greater than what we put in”.

Do you have a similar story to tell about children and dogs? Or is this just anthropomorphism dressed in expert clothing? Please do share…

The Best Man in My Life

What a rollercoaster ride this blogging business is!  Having dived in headfirst last week, I got to Monday and suddenly realized a few things:

-       I have to do this every week

-       I have no idea what to say to the thousand (Twitter) voices in my head

-       I need to get out of bed earlier!

Then I saw Coleen Patrick’s new blog and nearly had a tear.  Leaning into the Leap is a beautiful and inspiring lesson about the things we don’t want to do (or think we can’t), and the lessons we can learn from dogs.  It was so simple, and so profound, that I simply had to share it – here, on Twitter – everywhere.

On an entirely different note, it’s the little things that keep us going, right?  The biggest buzz for a newbie is getting a Like on your page within half on hour of putting it out there!

Ellayourbella was my first Like!  I’ve seen her around a few times now, and have no idea how she finds us newbie’s, but the best surprise of all was her blog.  An uncensored, wicked-funny romp through “My Discarded Men” – with some solid advice for single women (and men) on the dating scene (did I mention Uncensored?).

Anyway, for very different reasons, this blog is dedicated to Coleen and Ella – for keeping me going :)

Relationships are funny things.  The superficial ones you always know you have to work at and so, in an odd way, you don’t take them for granted.  But then there are those other ones that stick around, so long a forgotten limb – until they’re (nearly) gone.

You’d think sixteen years might make me pay attention.  But next thing I’m sitting in the therapist’s chair and she states, as if it’s nothing, “Well, he’s probably the most consistent relationship in your life up until now!”

And that was the moment that I woke up to the fact that the best man in my life was of the fur persuasion!

Meet Pepi

I met Pepi when I was eighteen years old.  As is usually the case with these things, it wasn’t like I went looking for him.  It was my flatmate at the time who wanted a man pup – but when I saw his brother, it was love at first sight.

I didn’t realize then that he was probably too young to be brought home, so little surprise now that he has a Mommy complex.

But who could blame me?  The morning after the first night – he loved me more, not less!  Before long, he was the only one with a toe fetish that was impossible to resist :)

When I think about it now, he has always had a lot going for him on the man stakes:

-       easy to clean up after

-       relentlessly positive and chirpy

-       fiercely loyal and protective of his girl

-       able to be physically controlled restrained in volatile situations of his own making

And that’s not all.

He always notices my sense of style!  The day I shaved off all my hair, he was particularly incensed.  Whether it was because he didn’t like it, or didn’t recognize me, either way his outrage was well founded, showing he’s a man of taste.

But best of all he loves me most in my daggiest of states (Aussie slang for ‘unfashionable, untidy and dirty’).  Okay, that is probably self-serving on his part, as it means (luckily for the rest of the world) that I’m not leaving home.  Still, it’s nice to be loved for who you are.

Which brings me to the present and the reason for my visit to the Doc.  I can’t leave home anymore.  The last time I did, after four days away, he had started on his own Advanced Vetcare Directive of Nil by Mouth.

The time before that, when I left him for a day with a friend at a retirement village, he cried so hard all day the neighbours worried he’d be next.

It turns out sweet sixteen is not so sweet for the little fella, especially when I’m not around.

I’m left with two choices.  One is – forever.  The other is – ‘inconvenient’, but it is a second chance.

It requires medication for his mind, pain relief for his bones, a walk every day before breakfast, home cooked meals and treats and Me – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I think about the times I lived alone with him, huddled in front of a bar heater in the gloomy Melbourne winter, watching Xena while he gnawed my shoe.  He was there.  He was always there.  And once he’s gone, he’s gone.  At least now he has no doubt that he’s the Best Man in My Life.

What about you?  Do you have loved ones of the fur persuasion?  Do they know they’re loved?  What would you do if you had a second chance?

Karma is just another word for Genes

My first week out has been a fascinating, if overwhelming, venture into the blogosphere.  With Mother’s Day just past, the topic that stands out is mothers, children and parenting more generally.

But first, I want to dedicate this one to two bloggers who made my week:

Lynn Kelly

Lynn is an awesome lady – she was the first to comment on my blog, and her welcome was so generous and warm it made me want to keep going (instead of run away screaming back to anonymity).  She has a fantastic, quirky sense of humour and her blog on Mums’ Absent Minded Moments was hilarious.  (Note to self: since you already have those moments, DO NOT have kids – borrow someone else’s!)

It was her Blogoversary this week, too, and reading where she’s come from to now was truly inspirational.

The other was a Freshly Pressed blog by the Man of the Minivan  who wrote about the Joys of Disciplining Someone Else’s ChildIt was a totally entertaining read, and all the more refreshing because he says it how it is (Disclaimer: if you don’t like opinionated, don’t go there).  This blog obviously hit a nerve, because his post has 209 comments and counting – and he’s replied to every single one of them! He seems like a great guy, and an awesome Dad to boot.

From everything I’ve read and heard in my life, I’ve pretty much got the picture that having kids is a show-stopping, life-changing event.

For those who’ve made the decision to have them (or the decision not to do anything to stop having them), here’s the thing:

Brothers, sisters, Grans and Gramps – it affects us, too!

Here’s how I know:

There was a day, many moons ago, when a well-meaning mother in a public toilet block mistook me for my sister’s son.

I’m not sure if it was the sexy Kermit outfit….

…or the attractive haircut my sister had just given me (‘I know, I want to be a hairdresser! Let me practice…’)

Anyway, ever since then I’ve been determined to live up to the fiction that I’m adopted.

And it was all going along so well…until my sister actually had a son.

We should have sorted out our differences before that happened, but alas, Karma is just another word for Genes (coming back to bite us on the butt).

It was like the universe waited until the Sun, Moon and Rising Star were aligned exactly how they were when I was born.  Then out he popped – a few weeks overdue.

Now our family had two shy but horrifically stubborn Taureans to deal with.

Whether you believe in astrology or not, it is impossible to escape that familial connection – that uncanny ability my nephew and I have to look inside each other’s souls and know what’s there.

It’s like the time, when he was barely three, he proclaimed how “Aunty Nana’s scary.”

He said it, probably because in that moment, unlike his mother, I wasn’t buying his tantrum.

We bored into each other’s eye sockets, and then he ran away up the stairs.

And he thought HE was scared.

Having now three nephews and a niece (if only there was a single word for them, like Neephs…cute little Neephs), I’ve learned a great deal about myself.

Like the fact that my mouth has an aversion to forming actual WORDS is a genetic affliction.

It’s unnerving, the way they can look at you, and look away, and without one word just sum yours up:

Eh, phony.

I can’t blame them, really.  I’d think the same if I had to listen to me trying to make small talk.

Which is why, as a family, we are much more comfortable in silent proximity to one another, admiring the wind in the trees.

Recently, I had a birthday, and was again reminded of the connection running through our veins.  My sister’s three each drew a picture, and later, the conversation on the phone went something like this:

4 yo: ‘I dwew you LADY BIRDS!!’

6 yo: ‘I don’t wemember what I dwew…yeah, it was a TWEE HOUSE!’

Mum (for soon-to-be 8 yo): ‘He doesn’t want to talk’

And I get it.  Sometimes it’s hard to say how we feel, or to even have anything to say at all.  And that’s where Art comes in.

I write because I love my Neephs, because there are things about the world I want to share with them, because – in whatever way I can – I want their world to be a better place.

Their struggles are my struggles – to deny that connection is to deny life itself, and all the lessons that it brings.

So what about you?  Does being an Aunt, Uncle, Parent, Grandparent – any kind of child relative – scare the pants off you?  Do you see karmic patterns in those little bundled genes?  How has it rocked your world?