Money, please

A while ago I wrote a post about coffee, describing a memory of seeing my mother order a cappuccino back when I was a young child, and then went on a ramble about takeaway coffee. Mmmmm, coffee.

As it happens, I started out with an entirely different intention for that post, but I got sidetracked (it’s not unusual!) and decided to let the post go in a different direction. (I must admit that many of my published posts began as an idea that morphed into something quite different when I started writing.)

So tonight I thought I’d revisit the original idea. I can go back to it, because I scribbled down some notes straight afterwards. Yes, literally scribbled – with a pencil, on paper, whilst on a moving train, just as if it was 1985, before the advent of the smart phone, or, for that matter, as if it was 1885, before the advent of the Biro. One of the positive aspects of a 50 minute commute on a train to work is that I’m free to scribble, and also to think – something that can’t be said for every activity one undertakes these days! By cleverly combining both activities, I have 50 full minutes to indulge in thinking and scribbling notes. It’s quite a good imitation of what I’d be doing all the time if I was a real writer.

Back to the notes I scribbled that morning. There is mention of missing  the train, and a description of how, having nearly 20 minutes to wait for the next one, I walked across the concourse and down the steps to the street, where I stood waiting at the traffic lights, intending to cross and order a coffee at a little cafe on the corner. Yes, yes, we’ve heard all of that before, I hear you thinking, hurry up and get to something new! 

Where those notes veer off in a completely different direction from that previous post is when they mention the man who spoke to me that morning:


Waiting at the lights, I realised that a man standing nearby had said something. Or rather, was saying something. I looked over at him, and immediately clocked that he was homeless. He was repeating something quietly, which I assumed was a request for money. There were a few other people at the lights, and although he was not looking directly at me, I also assumed that this petition was directed at me, since I was standing closest to him. To be sure that he was asking for money, I said, “Sorry?” Without raising his eyes, and as if he was not a human but a pre-recorded tape playing at a very low volume, he responded so quietly that it was hard to decipher, moneypleasemoneypleasemoneypleasemoneyplease.


Like many large cities, Melbourne’s residents are a mixture of the obscenely wealthy, the very poor, and the spectrum of all of the rest of us, who fall somewhere in between those extremes. I can assure you, the obscenely wealthy would never set foot in Footscray, the the inner Western suburb where I was standing at the lights that morning.

Inner suburbs in the North, East and South of Melbourne, such as Richmond, Fitzroy, Carlton, Collingwood, and the imaginatively-named South Melbourne, gradually morphed in the last century from working class areas to fashionable areas where real estate prices regularly soar to new record heights every few years, and, with the exception of the government housing that still exists in all those suburbs as a reminder of their recent past, only the wealthy can afford to buy, or even to rent. The streets in those suburbs are lined with all the signifiers of middle-class abundance –  clothes shops, shoe shops, cafes, bakeries, bars, galleries, antique/vintage/retro furniture stores, beauty parlours, tanning salons, manicurists, gyms, and Thai Massage parlours. Meanwhile, the inner West retained the stigma of being working class and undesirable, right up to the end of the 20th century, including Footscray, the inner-suburban hub to the rest of the western suburbs.

Unless they live in a neighboring suburb, as I do, few Melburnians ever travel to Footscray just for an outing. It’s not an area you’d travel to for window shopping. The streetscapes are not particularly pleasing to the eye. Any “modern” touches in the central shopping area appear to have been designed in the 1980s, when tubular structures in salmon pink or bright aqua, combined with glass bricks, may have seemed exciting. Unfortunately such design elements did not stand the test of time, and they now look faded and sad. The streets are lined with a store fronts and cafes in bright garish colors, a varied mixture of cheap places to get good Vietnamese food, African cafes, Vietnamese hairdressing salons advertising hair cuts for $10, African tailors where you can have your clothes altered for $6, clothes shops with racks of cheap, sweat-shop produced clothing hanging from floor to ceiling, and “$2” shops with colorful plastic items physically bursting out of them and onto the footpaths out the front.

According to Wikipedia, Footscray contains a high (over 55%) proportion of residents who were not born in Australia, with the largest proportion of refugees coming from Vietnam and East African countries. There is a huge diversity of cultures in the area, and that gives the area its own character but it can make some people uncomfortable.

Footscray streetscape 2012 - pic credit Wikipedia

Footscray streetscape 2012 – pic credit Wikipedia

Services in the area include the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, and other charitable and grassroots organisations working to help refugees and the homeless. There is plenty of genuine poverty in the Western Suburbs, and Footscray is at the hub – all trains to the Western Suburbs pass through Footscray.


That brief little introduction to Footscray’s demographics was not in the notes I scribbled on the train. I didn’t need any context that morning when I looked at the man asking me for money at the station. I had no doubt that he is, or has been, homeless for a lengthy period, with no means of income. If I’d encountered him on the streets of Toorak, one of Melbourne’s wealthiest suburbs, I would just as confidently have known that.

Generally, when someone in the street asks me for money, I take a second to decide whether I think they are genuinely suffering hardship or just a con artist, and another second to decide whether I’m willing or able to give them money. (The answer to A does not necessary determine the answer to B.) I didn’t need a second in this case. This man’s inability to make eye contact, or even speak at a volume I could hear properly – something that would best serve his interests – seemed to confirm that from years of living on the streets, he feels invisible, and is unable to relate to the people milling around him in anything other than a robotic way. Ask for money, receive money. Ask for money, don’t get money. Ask for money….repeat. 

I rummaged in my purse and gave him some gold coins. As I handed the coins over, I thought how genuine interaction must be a rarity for him, so I said brightly, “Here you go, have a nice day,” but his response was mechanical and indecipherable, and, having received the coins, he was already turning away.

But as soon as those words came out of my mouth, I had a strong reaction –  I felt ashamed of them. The lights changed again, I crossed the street, and went, as we know, to buy the coffee that prompted a whole other post. While I waited for it, I could hear my voice echoing in my head, “Have a nice day!”

As I replayed those words in my head, I detected a tone that I hadn’t intended, or hadn’t realised was there when I said them. I hope that in play-back, my memory was distorted, because I sounded forced, too bright and cheery – patronising. Smug and self-righteous. I sounded as if I was issuing an imperious command. As if I thought that, now that I had generously bestowed him with about 5 measly dollars, he should do like Pollyanna did: be intensely joyful for what he had been given. Basically, when I played myself back to myself, the voice I heard sounded like a misguided, privileged, white, middle-class, bleeding heart do-gooder. Which is, no doubt, what I am.

I chided myself for my ridiculous command. What could it mean to such a man, if he gave it any thought, for a stranger to breezily say, after dropping some coins in his palm, Have a nice day? His  expectations for his day would probably centre around hoping that he’d end up with something to eat and drink, that he’d find somewhere to sleep that wasn’t too cold, that he’d get through another day safe and unharmed. No wonder his response to my breezy conversation sounded mechanical.

Standing in the coffee shop, for a moment I wished that I was the kind of person who would have led him to the cafe and bought him coffee or a sandwich. I hear of people who do that sort of thing. But even as I tried to picture that, I wondered how you would do that without it also being patronising and bossy. I know that I’m no good at false, bossy friendliness, and I just can’t imagine myself doing that to this quiet, almost invisible man.

In any case, I don’t think he even registered what I’d said to him. I’m sure he wasn’t losing any sleep over it – he has far more basic things to worry about. For him, that brief interchange at the lights, whether on that occasion with me or the next one with someone else, was not an interaction with another human, it was a transaction, and it was over the moment he received those coins. He was already on his way, to ask the next person moneypleasemoneypleasemoneyplease.




I love Paris in the Springtime

It’s Spring in Melbourne! After the unusually cold winter we had in Melbourne this year – we were treated to an extended version of Winter this year, that continued on through most of September – Spring finally seems to have arrived, and with it the renewed energy and lifted spirits that longer hours of sunshine and warmer temperatures bring. Hurrah!

Unfortunately Spring is also to blame for why I’ve already sneezed twice since writing the word It’s about 1 minute ago. Perhaps Spring also accounts for the large, slow-witted blowflies that mysteriously find their way into our house in droves at the moment and then proceed to fly in a slow and wobbly manner, around the house at shoulder height, as if they are stoned and paranoid about heights.

Anyway, it’s Spring, the time when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of cricket, now that the football season is over. Spring, when the buds start budding, the blooms start blooming, and my eyes start running. Spring, when we all get Spring fever. Spring, when we all….Spring clean. ?

I’m afraid I’m not really into cleaning, especially Spring cleaning. Who ever decided it was a good idea to devote an entire 3 month period – arguably the nicest 3 month period of the year for being outdoors –  to cleaning?

When it comes to cleaning, I begrudgingly allocate a small amount of time now and then to cleaning things a visitor might reasonably be expected to encounter on a tour through my house – dishes, cups, cutlery, floors and surfaces in bathrooms and kitchens, for example. (I have only one kitchen, so I’m not sure why there is a plural kitchens there). I allocate proportionally less time to things only the discerning, or pedantic, visitor will ever look at – the dust on the bookshelves, or behind the toilet, for example – and basically no time ever to wiping, sorting or tidying the junk that accumulates inside cupboards or wardrobes or in the junk room study, so if you ever happen to drop in to my house for a surprise visit, please don’t look behind the couch, or inside the vases, or even into the junk room study. (that could prove difficult if you’re staying overnight, as you’ll be in there on a fold-out bed amongst the junk.) In fact whether it’s a surprise visit or not will make no difference, I still won’t be wiping out cupboards for you.

This afternoon is a case in point. My parents and one of my brothers are coming over for lunch tomorrow. Things I need to do before that lunch could be divided into 2 categories, much like skills and experience on a job application:

  1. Essential – clean up the dirty dishes currently in the kitchen, go shopping for ingredients, prepare the lunch and dessert so the guests have something to eat when they arrive.
  2. Desirable – clean the bathroom, mop the floors, clear the table, set the table for guests.

Today I was out all day until about 3.30pm, and I’m going out again at 6pm. At about 4.30 this afternoon I calculated that I had 1 1/2 hours, and 2 possible paths to take in that time, namely either:

  • The Road Less Travelled/The Path of the Well-Prepared Host. This path involves shopping for the required groceries today, and perhaps even making a start on some of the food preparations, thereby making tomorrow morning more relaxed
  • or
  • The Road Quite Frequently Travelled/The Path of the Unprepared Host. This path involves getting out my laptop and settling in to spend the next 1 1/2 hours, or, basically, right up to the moment that I’m planning to leave to go out again, writing a post. The consequences will be to spend all of tomorrow morning doing all of the above mentioned tasks in order to have the house, and the lunch, ready by midday, probably feeling a bit rushed and stressed out while doing so – but hey – that won’t occur until tomorrow, right?

Was there ever any real doubt about which path I would choose? I opted for number 2, The Road Quite Frequently Travelled, (at least by bloggers)- so here I am.

Yes, the dust is gently accumulating on the floorboards, the rhubarb I’m intending to stew for dessert tomorrow is still sitting in bunches down at the Fruit shop, and I don’t recall when the floor was last mopped, but I’m here at my blog.

In my defence, I’m attempting a Spring clean of sorts. A literary Spring clean, if you will. I’m continuing on a personal mission to clean out some of the 19 Draft posts I’ve accumulated over the past few years, by shaping them into something decent and then posting them. I purged one just the other day, by turning it into a silly post about doing the laundry at night.

Today, the challenge is tougher than finishing off a half-written poem about hanging laundry. Today’s challenge is to devise an introduction that will nicely segue into a draft written two years ago, after an overseas holiday, about being in Paris. Now, don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a simple task. A topic like this is difficult to resurrect 2 years later, because when the writer is not in, and has no particular claim to any expertise on, a particular place, the timing of the post is crucial. Having now lost the immediacy of being written right after being in Paris, there is a high risk that a post about Paris, written by an Australian woman from her awfully dusty house in Melbourne, will come across as trite, superficial and cliched.

Looking over my original draft, I fear that some of the writing was pretty trite, superficial and cliched anyway. Witness the following lame sentence: “There is, of course, a lot that could be said about Paris, and I am not going to try and cover it all.”  Did I really think that was worth stating?

In the spirit of Spring cleaning, this draft has either got to be salvaged, or  thrown out for good.

I began this exercise quite ruthlessly, chopping out the first 4-5 paragraphs of the original draft with not a blink of the eye. Ruthless – this is how  you really clean things out. (If only I could do this as ruthlessly in the physical world.) There was nothing astounding in those paragraphs anyway, just some trite and superficial writing about how great it is to travel and how pretty Paris was. No wonder I refrained from hitting the “publish” button!

So after consideration, this is the only part I’m keeping. It’s about a little tradition I began, and try to uphold when ever I’m lucky enough to travel.  That is, to buy a book about the city I’m in.  I began this tradition on my very first overseas trip some 16 or so years ago, when I landed in San Fransisco, and headed, (not literally straight from the airport) to the famous CityLights bookshop, where I purchased a collection of short histories of San Fransisco. Reading the book later, back home in Melbourne, was all the more enjoyable because I was able to reminisce about locations I’d been to, while also learning more about the history of a city that I’d immediately liked and felt interested in.

It doesn’t have to be non-fiction. In Edinburgh, Scotland, I purchased a second hand copy of Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh. In Dublin, Ireland, I bought a copy of Dubliners, by James Joyce. I don’t devise my whole itinerary in each place around hunting down such a book, and there are plenty of cities I’ve visited where I haven’t managed to come across a book that was emblematic of the city: I failed to find just the right book when in New York, Hong Kong, Montreal, Edmonton, Cork, Nice, Venice, or Barcelona, for example.


Shakespeare and Co. bookshop, picture courtesy of Wikipedia

Shakespeare and Co. bookshop, Paris

In Paris, the legendary bookshop for any English-speaking tourist is Shakespeare and Co. I imagine every single English-speaking tourist who has ever visited Paris has dropped into this shop at some point during their stay. In fact, I think they were all there on the perfect Spring afternoon that I visited, because it was so crowded that I couldn’t turn around, or walk anywhere without……well, I just simply couldn’t turn around or walk anywhere. It was quite unpleasant, actually, as the store is tiny. To make matters worse, it was a warm day,  I was flying out that day, and I had already checked out of my accommodation – therefore, I was wearing unnecessary layers of clothes including a cardigan and thick rain jacket, simply because I couldn’t squash more clothes into the suitcase. I was also carrying my bulky backpack with me. I felt like the Michelin Man, trying to squeeze his way through a store full of young, thin, literary type-Australian students discussing the French-speaking Politics class they were taking at the university. (true)

Thus, once in Shakespeare and Co, all I wanted to do was get out as quickly as possible, so instead of spending time enjoying the atmosphere in this legendary store, famously a hang out for all sorts of literary figures through the years, including Beat poets, and Anais Nin, I made a quick decision – I saw a small history of Paris, so I shoved my way through to the counter, purchased it, and got the hell out of there.

I brought my newly aquired tome back to Melbourne with me, and read my way through all 600 or so pages, detailing the history of the city from the 3rd Century BC when the Parisii tribe set up at the site then known as Lutetia, and fought Julius Ceasar’s armies, through to its incarnation as the city it is now – or was when the book was published about 3 years ago.

As I learned from my reading, a city is a constantly evolving thing, with many layers of history hidden underneath the streets, below the ground cover in its parks; its buildings are demolished or repurposed, its physical boundaries are ever expanding.

In that sense, as it turns out, this post is a bit like a city.


Interior of the store: imagine approximately 400 people buzzing around and one large fat Michelin Man stumbling through them all.

Interior of Shakespeare and Co, obviously taken after hours. Imagine about 400 people climbing over one another, and one large fat Michelin Man stumbling through them all.


Pics of Shakespeare and Co store courtesy of Wikipedia.

For a concise, 1 page history of Paris, as opposed to 600 pages, try this useful link.

Laundering at night (a poem)

Standing on a chair outside

hanging laundry in the dark

pillowcases fall like snowflakes

 into the succulents below.


Reaching down to retrieve them

I think to myself:

“drinking wine and then standing on a chair in the dark to peg out laundry

is really a little bit silly.”


(The incriminating pillowcase was quickly removed from the succulents and hung on the line.)


Is that coffee?

I was early for my train yesterday morning, so, unusually, I decided to go and buy a coffee.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. Let me start again.

Yesterday morning I was running late for my train, so of course I hit every traffic light between my house and the train station, missed the train by 3 minutes and thus had 15 minutes to wait for the next one. City trains run more frequently, but I catch a country train, because I commute out of the city for my current job.

Sometimes – in fact, frequently through the long, icy-cold winter that has only just come to an end in Melbourne – I board the train at 7.58am for that 50 minute journey, rubbing my gloved hands together to warm them up, and look with envy at the people holding, casually sipping, a warm take-away coffee. I don’t quite do the Homer Simpson drool, but I probably do stare a second or so too long, my mind drifting, imagining the brief joy of holding and sipping a warm, delicious coffee. Mmmmm, coffeeeee.

I rarely, if ever, buy coffee on the way to work, before catching a train, or, in fact, on any occasion when I would need to drink it while walking or driving. In fact, I rarely buy takeaway coffee anywhere, except when I’m at work, where the “take away” part refers to me taking it back to my desk.

Contrary to what you may be starting to suspect, I’m not building up an introduction to a witty anecdote about some halarious past accident with a hot cup of coffee. No, I don’t suffer from FOSHCOM (Fear Of Spilling Hot Coffee On Myself)* – although given my clumsiness, it would be quite rational of me to take that risk into account.

No, the reasons why I don’t buy coffee to drink in transit, is because of my attitude to buying coffee, and, now that I think about it, to values around what is a luxury. In that set of values, takeaway coffee is a luxury, or so it appears.

Let’s take a few steps back.

I can clearly remember the first time I saw – or registered – someone drink a coffee that was not made at home from a spoonful of [Brand Name Removed] Instant Coffee. That someone was my mother, on an afternoon in town with me, when I was probably about 7-8 years old.  I was the oldest of 6 kids, so any kind of time with just myself and my mum was very rare, and this annual “day out” was structured around the very prosaic activities of catching the bus together (my mother didn’t drive) and going in to town to buy new school shoes and school uniform to replace those that were outgrown. (Most of our clothes, including school uniform, were second hand, so perhaps this annual trip was to purchase the really essential items like shoes and underwear.)

Next to the bus stop in town, there was a little run-of-the-mill cafe. Picturing it now, I imagine chunky pine furniture and checked plastic table cloths, but even that “memory” could be a construction I’ve come up with. I think that cafe was gone a few years later when I was catching the bus in and out of town by myself so it really does exist only in my earliest memories.

It was Mum’s little treat, at the end of the shopping, to stop at the cafe, sit at a table and have a coffee before catching the bus home again.

For me, this stop for afternoon tea was significant in many ways. Not only was the time spent with Mum a rare treat, but in addition, this was probably as close as I ever got to “eating out,” or even setting foot in a cafe, throughout my childhood – eating out was not an option for a family of 6 children, living in a small country town in the 1970s-1980s. It was not until I was about 16, earning my own part-time income, and quite competently able to catch a bus to town and get myself kicked out of nightclubs for being underage, that I and my 16-17 year old friends would end up spending many dismal Saturday nights in [Brand Name Removed] cafe as a sad second option, staring into a packet of fries or a goopy ice-cream Sundae.*

Eating out, as an event in itself, was a concept that I was not aware of as a child.  I doubt that my parents ever ate out, even without us. Yes, we were occasionally left with babysitters, but I think this was so they could go to a “show” – some amateur theatre production, or to the “trots.” Take-away pies, or fish and chips, eaten at home, or [Brand Name Removed] fried chicken eaten in a park on the way to my grandmother’s place, were the most exciting food items I encountered for most of my childhood, and I suspect my parents’ dining experiences were just as limited as my own.

Anyway, at the cafe near the bus stop my mother ordered the standard Australian Housewife Special circa 1978 – a cappuccino.  I have no memory of whether anything was ordered for me, but we’ll pretend I ordered an orange juice, just to keep this moving along.

This is my first memory of seeing someone enjoy the indulgence of sitting in a cafe, sipping a coffee. It must have really had an impact on me; the pleasure my mother took in enjoying this little window of relaxing time to herself (well, as close to being by herself as she’d ever get) and her sense of treating herself – the extravagance of ordering, not merely a coffee, but a cappuccino.

"Cappuccino with foam" by Johnny Lopez - http///

(These days, my coffee of choice is, unsurprisingly perhaps, a daggy old cappuccino. I like to think it’s because it’s less milky than a cafe latte – we all know how much I hate milk.)

Surely this memory is the reason why, despite the years that have passed since that shopping trip, many of them filled with scenes of me ordering coffees on morning tea breaks – first at art school, and then in the various jobs I’ve had – I still consider a purchased coffee as a luxury. It’s something to be savoured, sipped slowly, ideally while sitting down and able to be fully appreciated. To me, buying a coffee to drink while rushing on foot, or in the car, to be somewhere else, is akin to wasting the price of the coffee, and the whole experience of indulging in it.

Luxury has its time and place. A coffee as a treat each day at work is allowable – I deserve a small treat to get through the day, surely! But I’ve never been able to justify picking up a takeaway coffee at my local corner shop when I get the paper, only to bring it back home to drink. At home, I make coffee in a pot, or go without it for the day, because a luxury that’s taken for granted no longer feels like a luxury. Maybe my upbringing in a country town with no cafes is the reason why it has never felt right to me, the idea of paying for a takeaway coffee a block or two from home, just to bring back home to drink. Going out for coffee should be an event. That’s what I learned on that shopping trip with my mother.

So, on the morning in question, I was preparing to do something that I hardly ever do – buy a takeaway coffee to drink in transit, on the train. As it’s a 50 minute trip I figured that a coffee could be focussed on and savoured, along with the book I planned on reading. I ordered a takeaway cappuccino from a local cafe, and took it back to the station, where I stood sipping, waiting for my train. But, inevitably, the experiment was a disappointment. The quality of the coffee was nothing to write home about, and the experience didn’t end with me settling smugly into my seat on the train with a nice warm coffee. By the time the train arrived, I’d finished the drink and thrown the cup away.

On all counts, it failed the standard set by the cappuccino my mother ordered in that daggy pine-furnitured cafe, all those years ago.



Pic Credit: “Cappuccino with foam” by Johnny Lopez – http///

*FOSHCOM – a term I’ve only just coined, but surely bound to become a familiar part of the lexicon once this post hits the airwaves.

*Actually,  I remember that in primary school I was once taken to dinner at the Pancake Parlour, when my friend won a dinner for 4 there. It was probably the most exciting night of my life to that point.


These Precious Things

Every time I wash my kitchen windows, a memory comes back to me, of an unhappy, self-conscious 13 year old girl, washing windows in a classroom. Of course that teenage girl was me, and the window-washing in question took place decades ago.

Kitchen window Oct 2015


At the all-girls Catholic secondary college I attended, the well-worn tradition of dividing students up into “Houses” lived on. Divide and conquer, so they say.

Unlike more famous schools – like, say, Hogwarts – our “Houses” did not determine our class groupings, or our lodgings, or really much at all. They remained largely symbolic, a reminder of their namesakes, who were all women, probably nuns, who had founded schools for girls, or done commendable charity works in poverty-stricken countries. (As a side note, one of the few good things about that Catholic education was a strong social justice message combined with a powerful message that women could lead all sorts of things, including social change. That seeped into my consciousness without me realising it at the time.)

As far as I can recall, the main, and almost only, time our division into Houses came into play was in the lead up to, and on the day of, the annual sporting carnival, where they achieved their main function: to harness our natural sense of competitiveness and focus it into fierce loyalty for our respective teams.

The only exception to this is that in my first year of high school, students were assigned classroom duties on a rotating weekly basis, broken up into small teams based on Houses. I assume that we must have got points for our House for doing all tasks satisfactorily. So, for example, when it was the week for our House – let’s call it Gryffindor – the next three girls on the class roll, who were from Gryffindor, were nominated as responsible. We would then work out between us who was going to clean the blackboard, dust the shelves, water the plants, wash the windows, etc.

Actually, to be honest, I just made up most of those tasks. I don’t remember ever seeing shelves in our starkly boring 1980s classrooms, which still had blackboards at the front, and nor can I recall any plants, not just in the classroom, but within the entire grounds of my Year 7-8 campus, which, in my memory at least, was constructed entirely of asphalt. The only variation in the asphalt landscape was that part of it was underneath the school building, filled with lockers, and as an area to hang around in, it had all the ambiance of a dingy underground carpark you wouldn’t want to be stuck in after dark. The remainder was just one big open space, where, in the warmer weather, the sun’s hot rays could reflect off the shiny, dark asphalt and burn you a second time. Which was a bonus for the many hopefully optimistic 13 and 14-year-old girls, who would lie flat out on the asphalt at lunch time, their dresses hitched up as high as they could get away with, their legs smeared in coconut oil, in the hope that this would assist them to burn faster and turn an attractive shade of brown.

Of course, in this endeavour I was unable to join them for very long, as, with my white, freckled skin, all I would gain from time spent in the sun, coconut oil or not, would be a painful, bright red sunburn. I would have to leave the enticing surrounds of the hot asphalt yard, and retire with the other fair-skinned social outcasts, to the shaded, gloomy, undercover locker area, or alternatively, naturally, to every lonely teenager’s haven, the library.

But to get back on track, the only task that I’m certain we were allocated is the one that sticks in my memory all these years later. Yes, I remember washing the windows.

What I remember about washing the class room windows is how I felt when I was doing it. I felt ashamed and incompetent – feelings that were a common experience for me back then.

What strength of feeling I must have had, to have etched such a mundane moment into my brain for so long! Even now, 30 or so years later, I can still see myself at the window. It was a warm Friday afternoon, and I was scrubbing away at the glass, choking back my rising dismay as I tried vainly to get rid of the smears I’d made. It seemed as if the glass looked worse than when I started.

The background to this memory can be filled in from what I know about myself back then. I know that I was a timid, anxious girl, who, when forced to take part in any kind of “team” discussion, would allow the others to do the talking, and make all the decisions. I would have let the other two girls, both confident, assertive types, decide who did what, and allocate me to cleaning the windows if they so chose. I know that I had a severe lack of confidence in executing any task that others could see me do, and that lack of confidence was multiplied if it was a task I was unfamiliar with. I know, therefore, that I would have approached cleaning the windows with the same level of dread that a normal adult might approach the task of climbing down onto a railway track in front of a crowd to retrieve an object, in full knowledge that a train was shortly due to arrive.

It’s significant that this sense of complete incompetence applied to physical tasks that others could see me do.  There was an area of life in which I was confident, and that was in my abilities to do my school work. I was “bright”, and got mostly As and Bs all through school in all academic subjects – and in drawing or painting, which I was also good at, and received constant compliments for. What I liked about school work, or art, was that much of the “work” was done in my head as I drew, or wrote, so even the action of putting pen to paper was the second step in the process – and even that step could be executed on a piece of paper in private, without others’ scrutinising my work as it developed. In that zone I was comfortable, whereas I was highly uncomfortable undertaking a physical task that meant exposing the entire process to others’ scrutiny. Subjects I did not do well in at school (though perhaps for other reasons as well) ranged from sewing to sport, and any subject where a team project or a presentation was a large component of the assessment – and both were a major part of the assessment in my final year of English, unfortunately for me.

As an adult, I’m not the most confident person around, but compared to my poor, pitiable teen self, I’m doing fine. I’m still not fond of tasks that people can see me doing, particularly anything that requires me to know the right steps to take and the right order to do them in. For example, I don’t like cooking in the kitchen with dinner guests standing around talking to me, so I always plan meals that can be ready to go when guests arrive.

It is so often the case, when you expect to do something badly, that invariably, you will do it just about as badly as envisioned. Particularly, of course, if someone else is watching you do it.

And that is what happened in when I washed those classroom windows. I’d probably never been asked to clean glass before, and had no idea how to tackle it. No-one gave me any advice on the method for cleaning glass. And when it became obvious that it wasn’t going well, I assumed, as always, that the rest of the world knew how to clean glass properly and I was the weird misfit who obviously did not, or was too incompetent to get it right instinctively.

So there I am, at 13, despairing as to why the glass is all streaky. My cheeks are burning with a familiar sense of shame, because yet again, I’m unable to do a task that, to my mind, anyone and everyone else can do. Shame because I’m letting down my House. I’m not just a failure, I’m a liability. It’s just another reason to feel like a social outcast – what team would want a quiet, fair-skinned, non-sporty girl who can’t even clean glass properly? I look anxiously around to see if anyone is witnessing my incompetence. Sure enough, I see the other 2 girls on my team watching me and talking in low voices to the teacher.

I knew what they were saying.

Creepy crawly fluffy bunny

In a change of pace this week, we are looking at sea slugs.

Sea slugs??, I hear you repeat, in a tone of wonderment – or is that disbelief? – I can’t be quite sure, and your raised eyebrows are not helping.

Anyhow, before we take a closer look at those frisky little critters, we first intend to address our Editorial Policy, by way of explanation for why we feel it is appropriate, here on this blog, at this particular moment in time, to talk about sea slugs.

As any regular reader will know (I deliberately use the singular, as our polling indicates that there is approximately one of you out there!) here on Blathering About Nothing our team of intrepid reporters do their very best to deliver every single day – or, on average, once every 2 to 3 weeks –  an article deemed educational or newsworthy, whether that is a study on the behaviour of socks, an investigation into the history of a moustache, an opinion-piece on the revoltingness of milk, or just for something different, an examination of the potentially lethal dangers of yoga mats.*

You’ve probably gathered from the above topics, that part of our editorial policy on this blog is to avoid, wherever possible, simply jumping on the bandwagon of whatever topic is the latest craze to go viral on social media. Socks, moustaches, milk and yoga mats are examples of topics we brainstorm in the editorial offices, and deem to be, not only newsworthy and educational, but also, very safe bets in our strategy to avoid joining in on any social media frenzies. So if you are looking for the latest dumb thing said by Tony Abbott,* done by Kim Kardashian, or worn by that young female celebrity whose name I can’t remember, you will not find it here. If, on the other hand, you like moustaches, socks, yoga mats, celebrity ears, or hate milk, then there is something here for you, my friend.

An artist's likeness of former Australian PM Tony Abbott

An artist’s likeness of former Australian PM Tony Abbott

(Note that in the Sliding Doors version of writing this post – where we see the alternative-universe version of the direction this post might have taken if I smiled more, chopped my hair into an elfin, page-boy cut and had it dyed blonde – the previous paragraph could have been cleverly placed as an introduction, allowing me to fill this current paragraph with a long, amusing list of idiotic things you theoretically wouldn’t find here. What a missed opportunity for a gag-within-a-gag! Unfortunately as I don’t  generally follow those kinds of news items, I can’t even begin to imagine what they might be, so we are stuck with the sad-faced Gwyneth Paltrow with the boring brown hairstyle.)

So when brainstorming in the office this week, this reporter recalled an image that flitted momentarily through her Twitter feed many months ago, only to pop up in her memory again recently when she was filling time on a long train journey by trying to think of something to write about.

That image, which apparently went viral for a short time in the middle of 2015, was of a particular species of sea-slug that, on first glance, looks for a moment like a cute fluffy bunny rabbit. After that first moment, you realise that the cute fluffy bunny has no nose, mouth or eyes that you can discern, and suddenly its cuteness is kind of undercut by a somewhat alien, slightly creepy, quality.

No doubt it was this cute-but-wait-a-minute-it’s-kind-of-creepy look (which was all the rage in Paris this summer), that caused pictures of the sea-slug to go viral on social media in about July of this year. However, as it’s now late September, our Editorial Team decided that the sea-slug is safe for us to cover, since it’s clear that we missed the bandwagon when this going to viral land. (We didn’t even make it to the bandwagon departure point. Where do bandwagons depart from these days anyway? It’s no wonder we are never on them – it’s very hard jumping on bandwagons in modern times, when it seems the only way to catch them is to take a running jump as they go past at high speed, with a high risk of landing in the middle of the brass section and knocking out the tuba player’s teeth.)

If you still doubt our editorial integrity, you only have to look back at some of our past posts to see that we have, from time to time, expressed a particular fondness for primitive creatures who reached their evolutionary peak many millenia ago, and have stayed pretty much the same ever since then. We’ve published pieces about jellyfish and other deep sea creatures, cockroaches, and parasites (in the form of large hairy moustaches), for example. So its clear: here at Blathering About Nothing, we are fascinated with the primordial.

As a last ode to our integrity – or a perverse desire to ensure we never use cheap tricks to get extra hits on this site, we’ve made the editorial decision not to link to any of the pictures of the slug that were widely circulated. But we are not leaving it entirely to your imagination – we commissioned an artist to do a portrait of the slug for us. I’m sure you can appreciate that this was an expensive venture, given the cost of the deep-sea diving gear and the underwater pencils that work at depths of more than 4 metres.


An artist's likeness of a sea slug (fig 1.) and a cute fluffy bunny (fig 2.)

An artist’s likeness of a sea slug (fig 1.) and a cute fluffy bunny (fig 2.), note similarities.

Now one thing that this slug-bunny, as we like to call it, reminds us of is Wittgenstein, a famous philosopher, who wrote about the phenomenon of seeing something as something else. His example was an image of a duck-rabbit – on first glance you may see a duck’s head, then when you look again, it’s a rabbit’s head, on its side. Woah, right? (To see what I mean, check out an art work inspired by this idea, called The Duck-Rabbit Problem, by Australian artist Kathy Temin, which you can see here or in the contemporary collection at the National Gallery of Victoria.) The equivalent in 2015 is the slug-rabbit problem, a philosophical problem which can be encountered by anyone in their own home with time on their hands, by Googling “sea-slug with rabbit ears.”

The other thing that we like about the sea slug is, as mentioned, that it reminds us of deep sea creatures who look as though they did all their evolving a few millenia ago and then sat back – or slithered around, as is more usually the case – and let the rest of us various species gradually appear, and then blunder along doing our best to evolve, losing casualties along the way, trying to work out who was the fittest, etc etc. Take jellyfish for instance. According to the Smithsonian, they have been drifting aimlessly around in our oceans for more than 500 million years. In comparison, homo sapiens appeared around 200,000 years ago, a mere blip at the end of that time period.

A rigorous search by our intrepid research team has so far been unsuccessful in establishing just how long the particular species of sea slug in question, the Jorunna parva, or “bunny-rabbit slug”*, has been around for, so any insinuations that it has been crawling around on the ocean’s substrate for as long as jellyfish have are purely conjecture on the part of the writer (ie, me), made in order to ensure that the theme I’d decided is not spoiled by the presentation of evidence to the contrary. This, of course, is common practice in any tax-payer funded research project, so if you have evidence to the contrary, we will thank you to keep it to yourself, or write your own post on sea-slugs, which we will read with great interest.

As a final note, if you’d like to see lots of pictures of the bunny-rabbit-like slug, check out this website. If you’d like to ask a sea-slug a question you can go to the sea-slug forum. And if you have no interest at all in sea slugs, well, I guess you stopped reading a while ago, which was probably a smart move.


* Although we usually try to avoid topics that are popular on social media, we have actually written posts about cats. We hasten to point out that our cats were not falling off/into toilets, or speaking in a dumbed-down pigeon-English. Ours were far more diverse in their activities, which included hiding under the bed and doing star jumps. Despite that, one of our cat posts did go viral – relatively speaking, meaning that it got about 1000 more views than any other post on this blog has. Except for one about socks, which turned out to be our most popular post ever. Go figure.

*Similar to Donald Trump but with less money and more of his own hair

*the latin name probably does not mean bunny-rabbit-slug, although I suppose it might.

The things about grief

I have a plastic A4 sized folder that sits on a shelf in my wardrobe. It contains papers that I threw together when we cleaned out my little brother’s room, after he died, 4 years ago.

Some of those papers include a signed annual leave form, for annual leave that began on 11 September, the day we found out he had passed away. There is a work review, with comments written by John and his supervisor, and incident reports John had kept copies of.

These may seem like odd things to keep, but I had a strong desire to keep these pieces of paper on which my brother had written, because I don’t have a single piece of written correspondence from John that I could treasure – no hand-written letters, no emails, not even a text message. (I got a new phone about 4 weeks before he died, and old texts did not transfer over.) He had only just set up his very first email account, a day or two before he passed away, for purposes of the course he was to start on the Monday.

I kept these pieces of paper also because of my writer’s love of the little incidental details that make up a life – again, something I have no other records of, in the life of my brother. These pieces of paper give me dates – the date he signed his leave form, the date he had his worker review.

What’s more, I can interrogate them for evidence of my brother’s personality and character. I detect these traits in the criticism he – someone who had left school at 16 – wrote in his work review (“my PD says in part exactly the opposite of what it is intended to convey”) and in the incident reports he filled out. These reports are, in my opinion, concrete evidence that my brother was a compassionate, thoughtful person with integrity and personal ethics. He took the trouble to fill out an incident report, to formally raise it as an issue that the elderly residents in his care are not given hats to keep them from being burned in the sun when taken out into the garden. And when I read his incident report outlining in great detail an event where a staff member subjected an elderly resident to taunts and humiliation, until John kicked his co-worker out of the room, I can sense his level of anger and disgust at that behaviour, as well as his determination that the elderly man be treated with dignity and respect.

There are other papers shoved into this folder: a photocopied page of the local newspaper of our home town in the late 1990s, featuring a fresh-faced John in a promotion for the business he worked in at age 17, and the obituary pages from the days following his death, torn from the same local newspaper some 16-odd years later.

In addition to papers, I collected some of his CDs and books, but I can’t name the CDs and books, because they are all still in a box in our ceiling storage. At that time, I couldn’t bear to look at that box of his things, but I didn’t want them to lose their identity as “John’s” by integrating them into our CDs and books, so up in the ceiling they remain 4 years later. Up in the ceiling also, is a bag with his work shirts in it. I took that because they smelled like John.

When you are left with so little of someone, outside of your memories, you’ll grab anything you can.


I have written many posts about my brother’s death, and about my thought processes when I was grieving, but when last Friday came round, and it was 4 years since he had died, I suddenly felt a strong desire to not write a thing. I just didn’t want to sit down knowing that I was going to scrutinise, analyse, and write about my grief, all over again.

Because it seems to me as if focussing on how his death made me feel requires me to actually distance myself from the immediacy of those feelings. As we know, you can’t be in the moment, and also be writing how you feel about the moment. As soon as you start observing how you feel about the moment, you are no longer in the moment.

I guess this tendency to observe and write about my feelings is probably a curse that comes with having the urge to write in the first place – because of course the flip side is, that to write about your feelings, you need to be able to take a step back and observe them! This makes me ponder what causes me to be inclined to step back and observe my own thoughts and feelings – something I’ve done since I started a diary when I was about 11. It also causes me to scrutinise my motivations when I write posts about grieving.

When my brother had just died, I constantly felt a desire to tell complete strangers – the waiter in a cafe, the client at work, any one in any trivial interaction – that my brother had just died. And on any occasion when I did tell someone, including friends who didn’t know my brother, I wanted that person to reel backwards in shock. I wanted tears to come to their eyes. I wanted them to be speechless with emotion. I wanted their eyes to well with tears. My sister expressed something similar at the time, writing in an email that she felt like she wanted to accost strangers and say “look, this is the gist of it….”

What drives that desire to scream the news to the world when someone you love dies? AT the time, I felt like I understood why people in other cultures wear black arm bands, or something to indicate to the rest of the world that they are mourning.

Back then, I definitely wanted other people to also be devastated at the loss of my beautiful brother. I wanted others to fully grasp the enormity of the situation, so that they could empathise with me. But also, I’m sorry to admit, I wanted to inflict the pain that I was going through, onto others.

Last Friday, I felt weighed down by all the posts I’ve already written about my brother’s death and my own grief. I knew the answer to what my motivation is in writing them – it is always, to try and convey the depth of the shock and grief that I felt. And, yes, there is also a desire to make the reader feel some pale imitation of that grief – at least, to make the reader feel sad, as I’ve felt moved to tears when reading others’ writing.

I would like to think that, at least as time has passed, my desire to move the reader is not motivated by anger and hurt, and a need to pass on the pain, but by the hope that my writing might occasionally be good enough to illicit an emotional response in a reader.

In any case, after 4 years, last Friday even that noble literary-minded goal did not motivate me. I decided I couldn’t sit down on the day of John’s anniversary to write about the milestone. It felt contrived – wallowing in grief for the purposes of writing a post. I decided instead, that I’d just be in the day, instead of writing about it.

(This is not to say I won’t write any more posts about grief – I suspect that I will – but for some reason, on that day, it felt important not to.)

As it happened, it was a glorious, sunny day last Friday, and that seemed to confirm that after 4 years, it was time for me to celebrate John’s life, instead of focussing on my sadness at him being gone. So that’s what I did. The day held a mixture of mundane, pre-planned chores, as well a few indulgences to mark the day (enjoying a coffee at a favourite cafe by myself, buying a bunch of flowers). Of course, there were a few moments – buying the flowers, listening to a particular song – where I choked up with tears for a few moments, but strange as it may sound, I had a lovely day, and in the back of my mind all day was John.


Since John died, I’ve started a new collection, based on my new interest. It’s a collection of words – words that make up lists:  lists of songs, poems, stories, and plays, with a common theme – grief.

Perhaps I’ll write more about that collection another time, but today I thought I’d end this post with some lyrics from a song from my “Grief” collection. It’s by Clare Bowditch, an Aussie singer/songwriter, who was 5 when one of her older sisters died, and it’s titled The Things About Grief.


The thing about grief is

It knows what I did, and it knows what I did not say

it sentenced me to a long, long life of excavating

things my little head can not yet understand

but I patch it all together with string and rubber bands……


The thing about grief is

few people know if the i comes before the e

and it’s hard to give away cos it’s the last thing you gave to me


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