Day 1/365

While I was avoiding the freelance work I was supposed to do (and eventually did) today, I started a new blog, where I’ve committed to publishing a paragraph a day for a year. Because I need to get back into the habit of writing something that’s not marketing copy on a regular basis. And a paragraph a day seems doable.

Second-person optional. Quotes of other people accurate to the best of my ability to remember. Poetic licence applied sparingly, with caution.

365: A Paragraph a Day

Fleetwood Mac on the stereo, singing about the end of things, while we’re at the beginning. I chop tomatoes and chicken, shred basil and oregano from the garden. You step in to wash yesterday’s dishes, sloshing beside the breadboard. I kiss you and you receive it like a gift. You’ve been sick; you wonder what’s been happening in the world. ‘You only know what’s been happening here,’ I say, and you smile. ‘Here is better,’ you say.

View original post

Advertisements

Diary of a bookseller (flashback)

In my first month as manager of Readings Doncaster, it was weirdly fascinating to stumble on this record* of my first month working on the shop-floor at Readings, back in 2009, during my second stint editing Readings Monthly.

Benefits of bookselling for mental health, frustrations of operating systems, joys of interesting customers.

IMG_3244


 

22 July 2009

Yesterday was my first-ever floor shift at Readings, which will be every Tuesday from now on. It was really bizarre, incredibly challenging (working the register, handling special orders) and exhausting, but good. It will be good to be out of the house and talking to people once a week, and to really integrate my job more. I think I’ll really understand the shop and what we sell and why, and get to know staff members. To be honest, I think I’ll get a greater level of respect from staff members. Everyone was so nice and supportive of me. I’m sure that in a few weeks, Booknet will be less confusing.**

 

I already had an encounter with an incredibly obnoxious customer: a guy in a suit who was ordering two copies of a motivational book and talked down to me like I was a puppy dog. Even his girlfriend seemed embarrassed by his behaviour. He kept firing requests at me while I was still looking up the last one. And he asked if I could order in two ‘Hang in there, baby!’ cat posters for him. I did my best to react without judging, but possibly failed, as he said, ‘I know – big cliché. But I need them.’

Even Kathy Kozlowski, who was helping me serve him, thought he was obnoxious.

‘I kept wondering what his girlfriend was doing with him,’ she said.

hang in there baby poster cat


29 July 2009

Post-shift at Readings Carlton, I’m feeling buoyant again, freed from the grip of self-hating anxiety. On the shop floor, I’m nobody and that’s fine. I’m anonymous. And somehow, rudeness or snottiness there doesn’t hurt me. I think because it’s not about me.

The shop floor is a persona, a version of myself I try on and inhabit once a week for five hours.

The snottiness is based on a false assumption about me: that I’m a know-nothing retail chick. Not that anyone at Readings actually is that.

I even wear kind of a costume to work: groomed, or at least interesting-looking. This morning, I dug out an old tartan mini (a respectable mini) from a container in the linen cupboard, where it’s been for two years, and put it on over leggings with my knee-high leather boots and leather jacket, and a sky-high ponytail. I thought it would be fun to wear, and it is.

‘Mum, why are you wearing a kilt?’ Felix asked as I zipped the back of the skirt in the kitchen, as he ate his toast and admired the Footy Record crossword he’d completed in bed that morning.

‘It’s not a kilt, it’s a skirt.’

‘Well, you don’t look like you.’

I laughed.

‘Can I borrow it? For school we have to dress up like a kids’ book character and it’ll be perfect.’

‘Who will you be dressed as?’

‘Andy Griffiths.’

‘He wears a kilt?’

‘Yeah. Just Macbeth.’

I said okay.

 


Footnotes

*In what is, I know, an incredibly pretentious exercise, I’m going back through old diaries, experimenting with working with what’s in there – inspired by a recent Slow Canoe performance by Gerard Elon, and Heidi Julavits’ The Folded Clock.

**Hahahaha. Nine years on: yes and no.

Melbourne, in six gardens (& one do-over)

IMG_4453

My mother loves to tell a story about how, when I was five years old, she took me to the Myer book department* to buy me a book I’d been longing for: The Secret Garden. The 1975 BBC miniseries was screening after school on the ABC, and I had fallen in love with the story of a sour, unloved orphan girl living in a grey mansion, who uncovers a walled-off, near-dead garden and nurtures it back to life, opening herself to the world at the same time.

I don’t know why I loved that book so much; only that I did. Maybe it was the girl’s seemingly magical ability to restore a hidden, neglected world to life, by the powers of her careful attention. Maybe it was the sullen sick boy she helped to restore at the same time, in the same way. Maybe it was her personality makeover, as she learns to care about something outside herself and is transformed in the process.

As an adult, I’ve always liked the project of a garden – though for a long-term renter, a garden is especially precarious. To garden means to invest in something that could wither away, or be taken away from you, at any moment.

But, despite losing a few gardens in my life, I can’t quite give up on them.

 


#1 

Fairfield. The jasmine that curled hopefully around the base of the porch rails, on its month-by-month way to framing the path to our front door. The cheap and cheerful jumble of bright flowers in the beds between our hard-rubbish-rescue-couch on the porch and the lawn that sprawled towards the IGA carpark opposite.

Our landlords were kind – more than kind. Despite their symmetrical beauty and their two houses and their two pre-school kids, they seemed nostalgic for our lives. We were twenty-something best friends and a toddler in a haphazardly furnished share house: a multi-coloured tent and a blackboard easel in Felix’s bedroom; strobe lights in Jason’s (he said he was conducting an experiment to see if they would drive him mad); a desk and a futon and an Eraserhead poster in mine. They were a thirty-something married couple who insisted they were once like us, though I couldn’t see it in their ruffled sleekness. She tried to feed us when we hand-delivered our rent; he brought us a welcome bottle of wine when we moved in (while my female friends marvelled at him). We thought this was a cosy long-term arrangement that would span years, until their mortgage dictated that they sell the house they lived in and move into ours – after renovating it, of course.

She almost cried when she told us we had to leave. She told us not to worry about the blue-painted fingerprints on the white weatherboards in the back, or the weeds in the patch of dirt behind the house that we’d never quite tamed. They were knocking it all down to start again, anyway.

My best friend left a few weeks after we moved in to our next house, in Williamstown – one I never settled in long enough to nurture a garden. Though I managed to kill an olive tree in a pot, Felix’s birthday present from his godmother, during my brief time there.

My boyfriend of six months broke up with me for the first time in what would be two years of leaving and returning while I lived in Williamstown. A flat and two houses later, he would become my husband.


#2 

My ex-husband thought I was wasting my time with gardens, that I’d only have to leave them, or would kill them with neglect. But he didn’t feel like that in the beginning.

Our first Yarraville house was the only one we actually moved into together; it was where we lived when we got engaged. In the photographs the real estate agent had posted online, the backyard had been thick with trees, and a pond was streaked with goldfish. In real life, just two fruit trees remained. Halfway across the backyard, the ground had been cemented or gravelled, and the dry pond was cracked.

I tried to mend and refill the pond, but the water seeped away: I couldn’t reseal it with anything I could buy at Bunnings. I pulled weeds from the gravel. We bought fledgling trees and shrubs, and planted them along the back fence. We got home one day to find the plants unearthed, scattered; roots bleeding out. The landlord’s father had visited, and had exercised what he saw as his right. Our real estate agent sent him the message that while we lived there, the property was no longer his to treat as he wished. We were allowed to replant, but something felt ruined. And that back section felt impossible to beautify anyway, without us fixing the pond, carting away the gravel, chipping away at the cement – none of which we were allowed to do.

So we went to Bunnings again. We dug out garden beds at either side of the verandah steps and along the fence beside the lawn and the garage. We planted. We watered.

And we bought lengths of fencing and tried to erect a barrier between the part of the garden we could fix and the too-complicated back half. If we couldn’t make it beautiful, perhaps we could decide not to see it. The fencing – a long thatch of sticks – was designed to be the attractive surface for a solid underpinning, but we naively strung it out between wooden stakes, with little more than hope to keep it upright in the wind and the rain.

My best friend worked with my husband’s best friend at a bookshop. My husband told me one day that they had bonded by laughing about our fence, and our precarious garden, agreeing with each other that we weren’t really the gardening types. They’d practically laid bets on how long it would last.

‘What does THAT mean?’ I frowned to my husband.

‘You know,’ he said. ‘We’re not the most domestic people.’

But I didn’t know. I thought they were being unfair. I thought we would show them.


#3 

I moved into our second Yarraville house by myself, while my husband was in Mexico for a six-month student exchange, in the week that my son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Like our last house, it had been designed by a landscape gardener. Unlike our last house, its garden (and the owner who’d planted it) was still attached. There wasn’t much to do – it was planted out with natives that survived and thrived without human intervention. Trees screened the front windows; a grapevine snaked languorously through the trellis over the back deck and dropped fat purple grapes on the pavers in summer. Felix wore a hole in the bush against the fence by kicking his football into it so often.

After some months – after my husband returned from Mexico, after we rounded the most disorienting loops on the diagnosis rollercoaster – we planted a vegetable garden in a scrubby corner outside the kitchen window. I knew it had been a kitchen garden before: Felix’s dad had lived in this house, some years earlier. We worked together in the garden, planting and harvesting tomatoes and Lebanese cucumbers and lettuce; zucchinis and chilli peppers; basil and oregano and rosemary. We could send Felix outside to pick herbs for our dinner. My husband’s mother looked after our garden while we were away; she added mulch to it as a Christmas present.

When our landlord told us he was selling the house, Felix and I felt that our hearts would break; that we had lost not just our house, but our home. My husband was more pragmatic. He liked the idea of a new start.

I was working in Bali when my husband moved our things into the next house, a few suburbs away in Newport.


#4

I tried to nurture a garden in the Newport house, on a street that ended at a power station on the river. There was a playground and a long rectangle of sports ground across the road, lined by petrol containers surrounded by high-wire fences. As the sun went down and groundlights bathed the containers in an orange glow, the rabbits who found sanctuary in the protected empty space swarmed beyond their daytime borders, small dark shapes in the sundown gloom.

The soil was hard, and black as the powdered residue that alighted on the sparse leaves of the few plants in the garden: squat roses, sea daisies, tall native grasses. A potted lime tree, a Christmas present from my mother-in-law, fried in the sun at the fence-line. My husband told me I didn’t water it enough, that it shouldn’t have been in the sun.

A lavender bush, also a present from my mother-in-law, turned grey against the weatherboard, its roots constricted by its container. The stump of grapevine outside my office window burst into green shoots, unfurled leaves … then died back, devoured by moths I couldn’t kill fast enough.

We went to Bunnings again. I bought plants and hanging baskets to brighten the view of the long brown fence, and hardy native shrubs that might survive the dry black soil, if I could dig past the clay, deep enough to root them in it. My husband drove me, walked the aisles with me, and told me that I was wasting my money, because the plants would die in pots, or we would be forced to leave them behind in the ground when we inevitably moved again. I bought the plants from my own bank account, because it was only me who wanted them. Surely it’s harmless to try, I said. When we got home, we unpacked the car boot together and then he went inside while I planted my garden. When his sister arrived for dinner, a few hours later, I was emptying dirt from my hands into the bathroom sink as he was pouring gin and tonics.

Over the three years that we lived there, some of the plants died; a couple grew into small trees; some were planted in containers, then in the dirt. The grapevine cycled through sickness and health as we trialled various weapons on the moths that fed on it. Gardening was harder, less rewarding, but still worth doing, I thought.

We stopped planting herb containers after my husband pointed out the black dust on the basil leaves.

‘Where do you think it comes from?’ he said, waving towards the petrol containers.

There had been no black dust on the basil we grew in Yarraville.

One day, I found a pot of flowers, suddenly dried-up and dead, on its side at a corner of the tiled porch. The terracotta was cracked; a puzzle-piece missing from its base. I carried it inside.

‘What happened?’

‘It was in my way,’ said my husband. ‘So I kicked it.’ He stared at me as I exploded. Eventually, he shrugged and retreated to the kitchen.

Within weeks, he had left.

In those three years we lived at Newport, my landlord divorced from his wife and moved into his father’s house, directly behind ours. Our next-door neighbour rode off on a newly acquired motorbike, leaving an angry wife, and three small girls on the autism spectrum.

I know it’s ridiculous, but I’ve always wondered if there was something in the soil.


#5

Felix and I moved back to Yarraville, to a flat above a cake shop and a hairdresser’s, with a generous balcony overlooking the main-street shops and the train station.

My mother drove me to Bunnings this time. She didn’t try to deter me from filling her back seat and boot with pots and plants and flowers and small trees, and herbs again. There was a lemon tree and a screening tree and rosemary and lavender bushes. There were red and pink and purple flowers, bursting from pots. There was the garden bench from the porch at Newport, and the old Yarraville house, and a little table and chair, and a beach umbrella attached to an iron stand, so I could read or work in the shade.

I spent many nights in that balcony garden crying on the bench in the dark, or drinking ciders or wine at the little table with a friend, or murmuring stories about dating (mostly horror stories, or sad ones, or stupid ones) down the phone, where Felix couldn’t hear me from his bedroom at the other end of the house.

I had my last conversation, my last fight, my final break-up with my ex-husband on that balcony, after he hung around out of loneliness, then took me back for two days, then dumped me again, this time both of us saying everything we’d ever buried inside about our resentments and regrets. The last time I saw him, before we met to sign divorce papers a year later, he was looking back up at that balcony from the street, while I lurked with the lights off, my heart splintering.


#6

I moved my balcony garden to Footscray three years ago, after my apartment building was evacuated, renovated and sold.

I’d been in my Yarraville flat for a year. Most mornings, over that year, I had filled a watering can in the laundry sink (twice over). I paid my son’s thirteen-year-old best friend fifty dollars to water it while I was in New York for two weeks, on one of those desperate, post-separation, fuck-it-all, spend-it-all trips.

 

When I arrived in Footscray, I gave the succulent and the umbrella tree that had originally belonged to my ex-husband to one of the movers. The screening tree and the rosemary bush and even the geranium soon died. The lemon tree was the last to survive; it even spat out a few lemons in its second Footscray summer.

There was no laundry sink to fill my watering can in; I had to balance it on the curve of the bath basin while my arm became increasingly heavy. I meant to water my garden every morning, but it seemed too hard.

I stopped checking my letterbox, fearful that my divorce papers would be in it.

A few days after I’d checked my mailbox for the first time in months, my divorce papers materialised.

I was very tired. When I wasn’t at work, I was in bed a lot. I was often at work until late at night. I told everyone that I liked being able to play my stereo loud, alone in my basement office, which I couldn’t do in my flat without annoying the neighbours. When I got home, I burned candles and drank cider in the bath, and played my stereo loud.

From bed, I saw my garden die a little more each day, on the other side of glass sliding doors. Grey branches and brown leaves were graffitied over the view of the river and the ports and the Westgate Bridge, and the lawns of the community arts centre next door. I shut my blinds, and didn’t open them for days, weeks, months.


#6.1

In January, a couple of weeks before I peopled my balcony to enjoy the Laneway Festival on the lawns below, I went to Bunnings with my best friend (who has become my significant other to the extent that I gave her my engagement ring for Christmas).

It was one of those rare Melbourne summer days that remind me of Adelaide: blue-blue sky and golden heat. She was keen to be in and out as soon as possible, I could tell (she had work to do at home), though she urged me to take my time. I’d been working my way up to this – to spending the money, to committing to a messy afternoon of planting, to working up the courage to ask for a ride to buy plants – for weeks. I’m still not a person anyone thinks of as ‘domestic’, but I was weirdly excited: it felt like a new beginning.

I wanted to look out my sliding doors, blinds open, and enjoy my view.

I wanted to sit on my own little patch of land in the sunshine and read, or eat, or drink, or talk. Or do nothing.

I thought I was ready to look after a garden again.

Felix and his girlfriend Frankie (who lives with us) and his friend Billy helped me and Mel to unpack the car boot full of plants and flowers and artificial turf and bags of soil, and bring it all upstairs. We left it on the air-conditioned dining table until the relative cool of the evening, when I began to bed the plants.

I worked slowly, over a week, involving a second trip to Bunnings (ill-advisedly solo, by bike and return Uber – Mel was mad that I hadn’t let her help), to plant the plants, lay the turf, hang the fairy lights, arrange the mosquito-repellent candles, and place the painted garden dwarf I couldn’t resist.

I had the Laneway party, where I watched my friends pelt each other with ice and share stories and jokes and secrets, and swoon over bands, and eat pizza from across the road, and drink and admire the view.

Frankie and Felix have had friends over to sit in the garden and drink and smoke and be young. The three of us pick herbs – chives, basil, coriander, mint, oregano – for our dinner, most nights.

I have read on the garden lounge, had nightcaps in the fairy-lit dark, talked and laughed, been quiet against the night-noise of the docks and the trains, and the trucks on Footscray Road.

And every morning, I take my watering can to the bath, hold it under the tap while my arm grows heavy, and take it back to the garden.

 

 


* She was THAT mother who insisted to the bookseller that her child is at a much higher reading level than her age group, and firmly but politely insisted on the unabridged version rather than the Ladybird Classic. That I proved the snooty bookseller wrong by passing her on-the-spot reading test is the source of her decades-long pride and joy.

Ten things I don’t hate about Melbourne summers #1: North Melbourne Pool

Last summer, I barely used a pool in Melbourne – though I did spend one glorious week luxuriating around the Stamford Hotel’s rooftop pool, during Adelaide Writers Week.

My home logic, I think, was that I have a lap pool in my apartment complex, so if I want to use a pool, I should use that (free) one.

But I didn’t just want to swim. I wanted all the other ingredients of a summer swimming pool. Specifically, I wanted to lie under the sun on a towel, in my bathers, letting my skin warm until it craved the relief of cool water. I wanted to read for hours. And at intervals, I wanted to slide into a cool, chlorine-scented rectangle (or any shape, really) and glide/thrash up and down until I was bored – and ready to start the cycle again.

And so, last summer, I kept telling myself I was about to go downstairs for a swim, but rarely did.

So you know how out of character this not-swimming was: when my dad got a swimming pool, when I was thirtysomething, I organised and paid for it to be cleaned, its first two summers in a row. I planned my summers to spend maximum time staying at Dad’s house in Adelaide, and minimum time needing to do anything away from Dad’s backyard, especially if the weather was warm.

For my thirtieth birthday, I used my magic I-dictate-the-day power to make my family spend the whole day at the pool with me.

And that week of poolside happiness in Adelaide last year? I rented the hotel room for half of that week myself, so I wouldn’t have to leave the water.

IMG_0165

This weekend, I cycled through the warm afternoon from my apartment on the outer lip of Footscray to North Melbourne pool: towel squeezed into my bike rack; bag in the front basket stuffed with books and pencils and headphones and chargers and a hat.

And once there, I camped out on the lawn and I read and ate a chocolate Paddlepop and read some more, and watched the a little boy play with his plastic shark in the leisure lane. I marvelled at how awful Triple M is as they played ‘Xanadu’ and ‘I Think I’m Alone Now’.

I watched the lifeguards circle the three pools, in their baggy, maximum-flesh-covering red and yellow uniforms and the kind of floppy cotton hats primary-school kids are made to wear. I half-listened to them, a boy and a girl – uni students, maybe? – flirt with each other as their rounds overlapped, and wondered if it was harder to spark workplace sexual tension these days, dressed like Ronald McDonald, than in the old sexy-swimsuits-and-skin-cancer days of last century. I was pleased, of course, that they are unlikely to get skin cancer.

I was the last person to leave the changing rooms, and then the complex, and then the property, as the boy and girl lifeguard passed me, exchanging their farewells. I sat on a bench outside the pool, having a long Facebook-Messenger chat with my friend about life and writing and dating and mental health and the way I have been telling my friends nice things they say about each other so they’ll become friends, which he thinks* is basically laudable but ultimately dishonest, because I’m selective about what I pass on. But, you know, it’s fine, he said.**

IMG_3937.JPG

So I cycled home through Kensington, spontaneously stopping to eat the best, freshest Mexican food I’d had in … forever … and then buying a clutch of groceries (tinned jalapeños, jarred cactus, hot sauce, tomatillo salsa, tortillas, corn chips, refried beans) so Felix and Frankie could have Mexican for dinner too.

I cycled along the river and down Dynon Road, and when I got home with the groceries, Felix squealed and said that he had asked Frankie for cactus for his birthday, then Christmas, and then extended it to Valentine’s Day, because she couldn’t find it anywhere. And then I realised I had half-heard all these conversations, over the past six months. (Wow, Frankie has actually been living with us for six months now.)

And then Felix and Frankie, but mostly Felix, cooked it all up immediately, while we all listened to vinyl on the record player Frankie had brought from her other home to live in our lounge room, and they let me debut it with The Queen is Dead, because Felix wanted to hear ‘the Smiths song from 500 Days of Summer‘ and I don’t have ‘Please, Please Let me Get What I Want’ on vinyl, only ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’.

And what has ALL OF THIS got to do with North Melbourne pool? I don’t exactly know, but I think it’s connected.

It’s about meeting the days with whatever they might have to offer, wherever they might lead, in a way that’s looser than a winter weekend, with its dictating structures of cold and wind and rain, can ever be.

And for me, feeding my body’s craving to be bathed in sun and immersed in water, at the bargain price of $5.50 and a cycle across the inner-west, opens me up to entering life’s serendipitous rhythms just that little bit more.

 

FOOTNOTES

*I feel the need to emphasise that this is MY INTERPRETATION of what my friend thinks, based on what he told me. I may have misread, though I definitely didn’t deliberately invent anything. (Does that cover me?)

**This is what my friend said, in essence. I can’t promise he used these exact words in this exact order. (Again – covered?)

Beaches

IMG_0009

There is a photocopied, texta-scrawled sign on the door of the milk bar opposite Williamstown Beach Station, advertising ‘Mumma’s lasagne’. I ask the man who sells me my Magnum how much the homemade tabouli is. He looks at me for a long moment before saying, ‘Seven dollars’.

I suspect he invented this on the spot.

I buy a tub, even though I swear that last summer, it was four or five dollars a tub.

**

On my way down the street, towards the shining water and brilliant orange and blue sky, I pass wet-haired, thong-footed clusters moving towards the station, or disappearing into parked cars. Clumps of couples, trails of families: kids bursting in sparks before languid, trailing adults, heavy with bags and towels.

A bare-chested, silver-haired man stops me at the border between the cement and the sand, his shorts bleeding water. The fluorescent windows of the cafe opposite the water illuminate the navy sky. He gestures at my headphones as he says, ‘the water’s warm’, with the seriousness of someone answering a question.

‘Oh,’ I say, through my own soundtrack. ‘Great! Thanks.’

‘What is it?’ he asks, gesturing at my headphones again. I slip a circle from one ear.

‘The Go-Betweens,’ I say, expecting the bewildered nod I get in response.

‘Well, make sure you go in!’ he says. I assure him that I will, as I replace my headphone and wave.

‘Don’t leave it too late!’ he says.

I laugh and turn towards the palm trees and stone jetty at the far curve of the path. I’m not offended, or even annoyed, but somehow his instruction has bolstered my resolve to take my time.

‘If you leave it too late, you never will!’ he calls after me.

IMG_0005

A young African couple approaches the soft-serve ice-cream truck, hand in hand. Their clothes are jewel-bright – his red t-shirt, her peacock-blue dress. Her braids fall down her back in a mermaid cascade. They lean towards each other as they talk, their heads almost touching.

They are in a world of two.

IMG_0003

Two smooth-skinned girls sit, facing the sea, long hair gathered in messy topknots. Bikini straps criss-cross their exposed backs, over denim short-shorts.

Their heads lean into each other as they talk. A world of two, watching the horizon; all of Melbourne at their backs.

IMG_0002

A girl turns along the black shore, on the lip of the still, dark sea. She bounces on her toes, spins, joy radiating from just her silhouette. A boy follows in her wake, his movements responding to hers in his own clumsy dance. He raises and lowers his phone as she moves. She cartwheels, straightens, stands still. Walks, pauses, leans into another cartwheel.

His phone rises and falls, flashes in her direction.

She leans towards it. It exists only for her, for him to capture and hold her.

A world of two, spotlit in liquid black.

**

A man jogs along the sand, his eyes fixed ahead. He is wearing jeans and a long-sleeved buttoned shirt, sneakers. Black-framed glasses, an exploding ripple of curls. He could not look more misplaced: on this beach, on this simmering summer night, with its population of loose limbs and bare skin.

Most covered bodies here are purposefully so: the young women wrapped in headscarves and ankle-length wisps of fabric; the older ones swathed in cool, generous draping dresses, bare feet buried under their card tables on the sand. But he is dressed for Smith Street.

I think I saw him earlier, before navy had seeped into black, before the last stripes of orange and apricot had sunk into the sea, or dissolved into dark. He was carrying an armful of paperbacks then, scurrying past the stone jetty and its lines of smartphone-clutching teens, their screens flashing video games and social media and message apps.

I noticed him for the books, and because he reminded me of the man I briefly dated late last year, the ethics & philosophy professor whose self-containment I had misread as chivalry, instead of the fortress against connection that it was.

The hair, the glasses, the shirt, yes. But mostly, the way he existed outside the world.

I must remember to read and avoid that, I reminded myself – even while drawn to it, just a little. Another addition to the single woman’s mental handbook, What Man is That?

IMG_2946

This stretch of saltwater and sand, my local for over a decade, sings under my skin – it has from my first glimpse from the top of the street tonight. Home.

But that other beach is home, too; the one in Adelaide, where I walked over the suburb dividing-lines until my legs ached with the effort. My first childhood beach, I think. Certainly, the one my dad visited as a child: the one he lived near, just a few suburbs away.

The one where he walked with his mother every Sunday, along the paths rather than on the sand (I don’t think either of them liked the grit of sand), with an ice-cream reward at the end. Until her memories and energy receded so far that it was no longer possible.

Even in the nursing home, she asked for ice-creams, Mum told me after she visited.

At that Adelaide beach, this summer, I ate Golden North ice-cream (only for sale in Adelaide) every night.

IMG_2871

‘I don’t really like Adelaide beaches,’ said my ex-husband once, from the depths of our 11-year relationship. I didn’t understand how this was possible.

‘But … they’re so OBVIOUSLY better than Melbourne beaches,’ I said. ‘They’re … real beaches. Not just a tiny strip of sand.’

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘There’s too much sand. It takes too long to walk to the water.’

I should have known then.

Though I suspected, still suspect, he said that because he knew it would hurt me, in a way I couldn’t argue because it wasn’t about logic.

**

In Adelaide, at Semaphore Beach, I walked along the waves on a warm summer evening, headphones on, and sang aloud into the wind. No one could hear me; my words were lost even as they left my mouth.

Here in Melbourne, I sit and walk among close-by crowds. People ask what I’m listening to. I buy tabouli. I play hipster-spotting and photograph sunsets surrounded by teenagers photographing each other against the sunset. I sit among families: around card tables,  under beach tents, sprawled on blankets.

None of those families are mine.

IMG_2251

In Adelaide, my beach is steeped in family history, over generations.

In Melbourne, my beach is where my ex-husband sometimes asked me to take him, sometimes complained that I was always going there without him, without even asking if he wanted to come.

Where I told my son to jump from the stone jetty – because in Adelaide we all jumped from jetties, didn’t we? – and he cut his foot on the rocks under the water so badly that he still reminds me of it, fourteen years later. Where I took my son and his best friend to camp by the water all day, to throw a tennis ball in the waves, to wrestle and shout under the open sky. Where my son and I went, together in the dark of summer school-nights, to cool down before bed in that year when we lived in the un-air-conditioned flat above the cake shop; the year my husband left.

Where my husband, when he came to the beach, always directed us home long before I was ready to leave.

Where, yes, we sometimes had happy times, all of us together – my son, my husband and me. Of course.

But in Adelaide and Melbourne, I watched my ex-husband’s reactions, wanting him to love what I loved. Wanting him to be happy, so I could relax and be happy, too.

**

In Adelaide and Melbourne, now, this summer, I walk as long as I want and sit on the sand as long as I want and make my own soundtrack.

Bookshop, Week 1

IMG_3308

Indie Molly (Ringwald)

I’m a bit in love with Readings Doncaster’s new range of 80s pop-culture cards, mainly because they provide visual evidence of my theory that our Ellen (aka my ‘daughter’) is basically an indie Molly Ringwald for the new millennium. This observation, and my request to be allowed to call her Little Molly or Indie Molly (she said yes to both), led to a very productive Wednesday morning’s creative brainstorming, between customers and shelving. Ellen has also said yes to my request to build a HBO half-hour show around her young single life as a bookseller/bass player/craft enthusiast/vegan chef/man magnet. It’s going to be like GIRLS, only with more diversity and less everyone-secretly-hating-each-other, and with a CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND musical twist (all indie rock).

IMG_3309

 

The subtle art of not giving a fuck about minimalism, happiness, mindfulness or barefoot investing (in a French way, of course)

After two days of saying I was too sleep-deprived to do anything as complex as putting together a new window display, I put together a new window display on Wednesday afternoon, clearing away two fly corpses and a lot of dust in the process.

Please note the second shelf from the top, and its array of self-help books. This category is insanely popular this week – I’ve never had more people ask for ‘self-help book recommendations’, simply asking me to point them towards ‘what’s good’, rather than coming in with a specific request. It’s a bit like being asked, by a stranger, to give them an instruction guide to help them rebuild their lives, without really knowing why they need those lives rebuilt. (Or, that’s exactly what it is.) I quite like the challenge, and the conversations that come out of it. Have explored the nature of happiness, mindfulness, Buddhism, organisation and brain chemistry over the counter this week. And, of course, whether or not deciding to not give a fuck is ‘a bit extreme’. (Customers were divided on whether this was a perfect attitude, or an alarming one.)

Mansplaining Olympics

When you’re a woman working in a bookshop, you’ll encounter various strains of mansplaining, from newly literary young men who want to tell you about how life-changing Jack Kerouac is, to middle-aged men who will explain pet topics in detail even after you’ve told them you’re quite across these topics (the latter is different from engaging you IN CONVERSATION about these topics, which is not only fine, but great). There are also the mansplainers who tell you, in tones of amazement, that you seem quite smart, after you’ve talked them through the politics section after a recommendation request, then follow this up with asking what uni degree you have, then making detailed suggestions for how you could get a degree when you admit you never finished one. It may sound odd that I’ve made this a type, but it’s happened to me in exactly this way twice – and with slight variations, more times.

Anyway, this week I hit Maximum Mansplain, when, for the first time in 25 years of customer service, I had to walk away from a customer while serving him, so I wouldn’t lose my shit. (I did ask my colleague, Indie Molly, to take over, and – hearing him yell at her and her voice elevate as I reached the back room, I asked our assistant manager to go rescue her.) Basically, he wanted a copy of a book that his friend had bought last month: when I showed him the book he said it was, he said that wasn’t the right edition because the cover had had an image that said ‘REVISED UPDATED EDITION’. I showed him the words ‘revised edition’ on the cover. He said it wasn’t revised enough. I showed him the imprint page with ‘2017’ on it. I explained that sometimes very popular books change covers, but keep the contents the same. (To which he replied by bellowing that the cover his friend had was different, again.) I even went to the publisher’s website and showed him the book and publication date there.

‘Your information is only as good as that website!’ he said. ‘And that website is obviously wrong!’

He suggested he ‘jump on’ to the computer/register and log on to his email to show me the book cover he was talking about. I told him we can’t have customers using the register. He said he’d give me his email log-in. I said I was afraid we couldn’t do that. And then, more bellowing … and something snapped in me, and I turned to my colleague Indie Molly, asked her to take over, and said to the customer, ‘I … have to go.’

Then I walked back to the customer in the science section who had been waiting to ask me a question next.

‘I promise I’m not going to ask you for the revised edition of this,’ he said, laughing and waving a sealed mathematics hardback at me. ‘But can I look at a display copy perhaps?’

‘I will VERY HAPPILY open this for you,’ I said.

‘I won’t even ask you for the revised UPDATED edition,’ he said, taking the book, laughing even harder.

‘Thank you for making me laugh,’ I said, and went into the back room to call for back-up.

For the record, apparently Indie Molly had to stop Bad Customer from following me across the shop, using the words, ‘please leave my colleague alone’ as he strode after me. And the book? It was a different book by the same author. Which had, of course, been my first guess.

That man broke me. Goddamit.

Favourite customer becomes a writer

Our favourite customer, Sloane – the one who is famous for being our favourite customer after I name-checked her on the Re-Readers podcast, and she was listening and heard it – came in twice this week. She hugged me hello, as is her lovely habit since the podcast, asked for a bunch of neurochemistry books, then explained that she’s planning to write a book this year, about psychosis and bipolar, from the inside of her experience and from a scientific perspective. She described the process she’s going to use to tackle the project – read lots of books, take notes, then weave her personal experience around it – and then said, ‘of course, I don’t know how to write a book, but I think that will be how I’ll do it’. I told her, truthfully, it’s exactly the process I’m using to write my next book, though I don’t know how to do it either. I recommended she read Kate Richards’ Madness: A Memoir and now I’m looking forward to her take on it next week.

SJWs always lie (according to Milo and the green-haired girl)

A green-haired, pink t-shirted young VCE student came in on Wednesday looking for Year of Wonders and The Crucible and The Good Parents.

‘Are those books the same price as QBD?’ her mum asked me.

‘MUM,’ said the girl, and nudged her. ‘It’s fine.’

‘I’m afraid I don’t know what price they might have these at,’ I said, very politely.

So, they bought the books, and I smiled fondly at the girl, feeling a bit sorry for her and her VCE year ahead.

‘Are you taking pre-orders for Milo Yiannopoulos’s new book?’ the girl asked.

‘Oh,’ I said, hoping not to sound shocked. ‘Well, let me see.’ So I told her it looked like we weren’t stocking it in any of our shops, but were taking orders, and could order for her. I told her the book’s name.

‘Oh, that’s not it. I mean the NEW one, the one coming out,’ she said. And as I looked it up for her, I told myself it might be research; it might not indicate support.

‘Oh,’ I said again, as a title flashed up on my screen. ‘Is the book …’ and here I braced myself for being very, very polite and neutral, ‘called … SJWs … always … lie?’

‘Nah,’ she said. ‘It’s not that one. Don’t worry about it, actually.’

IMG_3311

 

 

Why Anthony Morris is the greatest

IMG_0564

When I first joined The Big Issue Australia as books editor, in roughly 2006, I was welcomed by my fellow arts editors – then Rochelle Siemienowicz (film editor), Ghita Loebenstein (music editor), and Anthony Morris (DVDs editor) – to a meet-the-team lunch.

I didn’t know then that Rochelle and Anthony would become two of my dearest friends, nor that I’d come to love and admire them both as writers and editors so much that not only would we work together for many fruitful years on The Big Issue, but that I would (gratefully) repeatedly publish their work as part of my future editorial roles: including Kill Your Darlings, the literary magazine I helped Rebecca Starford and Hannah Kent to launch (Anthony was in Issue One, Rochelle in Issue Two), and the Wheeler Centre, where I ran the centre’s blog, among other things, for three years.

Anthony’s article on The Wire in Issue One of Kill Your Darlings was singled out by the Age review as a highlight of the journal. He then became KYD’s inaugural online film & TV columnist.

While his view, in that first KYD essay, that The Wire was the greatest television drama ever made was entirely uncontroversial, that wasn’t the case with his takedown of Game of Thrones on the Wheeler Centre’s blog three years later (‘Basically Silly, But Deadly Serious: Why Game of Thrones Doesn’t Work’). It was our most downloaded article of 2013 – and ABC Radio National called us to ask if Anthony would come on air to talk about it. (Anthony is actually a terrifically entertaining public speaker, but doesn’t believe it of himself, so he talked his way out of the radio program.)

In my time at the Wheeler Centre, Anthony was one of the writers I published most often on our blog. Many of these pieces grew out of our occasional lunches in the city, which would move from him giving me dismal advice on my love life (sorry Anthony – I am NOT going to the races to meet men), and general chit-chat, to, for instance, an informed rant about how everyone thinks it would be so much fun to interview Hollywood celebrities, but most of the time it’s just boring.

That particular resulting article, ‘Confessions of a Celebrity Interviewer (It’s Just Another Job)’, was one of my favourites over my three years at the Wheeler Centre, and I put it in my top-ten-blogs goodbye post when I left to become program manager of Melbourne Writers Festival.

Anthony has also, this year, co-written a romantic comedy novel that brilliantly satirises romantic comedies, and movies … and hipsters (The Hot Guy, with Mel Campbell). This Flavorwire interview with him and Mel, who are pretty much my favourite pair to listen to on movies & humour (and much else), gives you a flavour of it. He writes for SBS, Empire, Junkee, and more.

In my experience working with him, as an editor, he is one of those dream writers: he always delivers on time and to word count (sooo rare); he pitches a lot but never takes it personally if you don’t pick up his pitch; he has seen EVERYTHING and has an opinion on everything, but also considers everything within its genre and the maker’s intention; he readily picks up commissioned assignments when you’re hunting for a writer to take something on, and is often prepared enough to whip something out to order, quick smart. He’s funny, but not a smart-arse. He has an encyclopaedic brain for film & TV knowledge, but wears it lightly in his writing. And his writing often has heart.

Why am I carrying on and on about what a terrific writer and worker my friend Anthony is?

Because I feel like writers like Anthony – writers who are reliably loyal, knowledgable, bloody good at what they do, and a frequent pleasure to read – are not always valued as they should be, in these dark days for journalism.

I am also a big fan and supporter of many, many up-and-coming young millennial writers who are frequently seen in lit-mags (remember, I helped start one of Australia’s best & brightest – so no prejudice there) or heard on podcasts, and who have the unmistakable mark of the zeitgeist on them. I’ve never been heard to opine ‘kids these days …’ (unless it’s about textspeak, which everyone knows is stupid).

BUT. I believe that the literary ecosystem needs its Anthonys as much as (maybe more than) it needs the of-the-moment social media stars or lit-mag regulars. And if we don’t support the Anthonys, and (just for instance) keep them in their long-held jobs where they can continue to contribute their knowledge and mentor new talent, then we as a literary community are the poorer, and shallower, for it.

Ten things that happened on 4 Jan 2018

26231678_10156060441589747_3821878877790903_n

1. Singing snatches from various Sound of Music songs at my family around the dinner table, at random moments, and running around the table to dodge consequent snacks from brother Simon. Eldest niece Lilly joining in.

2. Op shop find from Mum’s local – $10 LBD, to add to my ridiculous pile of op-shop (excellent) rags this holiday. Basically have a new wardrobe to bring home … though maybe not enough baggage allowance.

3. Sister and brother both telling mum I am a grown-up and she should not sit up all night* waiting for me to come home if I don’t come home, but should assume I decided to stay out all night for my own reasons and will be fine.

4. Lilly shyly taking selfies of us on her phone at the end of dinner, making me feel like she’s now a pre-teen, and thus I am old.

5. Family deciding to see if my sister is a seagull by throwing chips at her face and watching to see if she goes after them … but then not doing it.

6. Mum talking about how once she and dad got the runs after eating a fish someone caught and gifted them, while we were eating fish and chips around the table, then saying, ‘oh, I didn’t go into DETAIL’, when I suggested this might not be ideal dinner conversation.

7. Being too tired to persist with my attempted quality TV streaming tonight, yet waking up insomniac at 1am. What’s with that?

8. Finding out my planned train trip home tomorrow/today has booked out, but I can fly home on Sunday for only $20 more – and get three extra Adelaide days. Best mistake ever!

9. Coffees. All the coffees I had today. (One large, one small.)

10. Listening to The Go-Betweens on my walk home from the bus-stop and realising what all the fuss might be about, after having half-consciously avoided them for years for fear of being too obvious if I listen to them, or too try-hard-hipster, or embarrassingly late to something everyone else has a solid, long-held opinion on. But fuck all that, really.

* As a mother of a New Adult who gets stressed and can’t sleep *just in case something has happened* when he doesn’t tell her if he’s coming home late, or didn’t check in when he said he would, I actually get it, and was deeply sorry (or a suck-up) enough to buy I’m-Sorry-Haigh’s-Chocolates for Mum and Nana. (And why did I do this bad thing? Phone died, too dumb/tipsy to figure out how to get around it.)