The Great Fake Chocolate Santa Fiasco

Just when you think things can’t get any worse.  The moment you think you’ve seen everything, along comes something so evil, so plainly diabolical you’d think it’s something that only Satan himself could have the temerity to conjure up and, even then, only after stubbing his toe and discovering that he’d forgotten to take the bins out.  Granted, there are moments in this life when you’re reminded of sunshine and unicorns.  But, once in a while, you’re forced to gaze into the abyss and are left to wonder what kind of heart of darkness feels the need to inflict something so plainly malevolent on the world.  I speak, of course, of chocolate Santa.

Firstly; to the creative genius responsible for putting this monstrosity on the shelves of local supermarkets, clearly someone hurt you sometime earlier in your life and you’re now seeking to inflict your damaged feelings and insatiable lust for revenge on humanity at large.  I urge you to look deep into your black, black heart for any remaining trace of goodness and in the event that you should stumble across even the most slender skerrick of humanity, please reconsider your actions and withdraw the abomination that you have unleashed upon us.  If there’s a shred of decency within you, you’ll remove chocolate Santa.

I appreciate that some of you are confused.  Surely a chocolate Santa is a bit of harmless fun?  No.  Not at all.  Because this isn’t just an issue of a delicious chocolate treat that you can buy whilst picking up some milk, it’s about usurping someone else’s job.  About being an imposter and committing the most egregious fraud on the general public.  His foil face looked all jolly and cheerful.  But the chocolate itself was not shaped like Santa Claus. The chocolate was shaped like the Easter Bunny.

Secondly, you’re not fooling everyone.  Even the mot casual of shoppers is alert to this unholy scam.  It doesn’t take much to figure out that it’s an Easter Bunny, disguised as Santa.  Presumably the dude responsible for Easter has returned early from long service leave and needed to do something to fill in the time.  But there’s surely no excuse for sending out chocolate rabbits in disguise at Christmastime.  The only thing that’s not clear to me is who the victim is.

Is Santa trying to muscle in on the Easter Bunny’s territory?  If, indeed, Father Christmas is trying to put the squeeze on the big bunny as some kind of mafia-style turf war, I’m concerned that the thing may escalate if our furry friend elects to retaliate by ‘going to the mattresses’.  It’d be horrible if Saint Nick was jumped by the Easter Bunny whilst buying fruit with his elf, Fredo.  In the days beforehand, Father Christmas will have the unshakable sense that he’s being watched and the whole thing will end in tears when one of the helpers goes to get the sleigh and it explodes as he starts the engine.

Or perhaps it’s the other way around?  Let’s be honest; rabbits have something of a reputation for turning up where they’re not wanted in plague proportions.  Perhaps this is yet another manifestation of a rabbit plague that threatens to overwhelm Christmas altogether before leaching into to Melbourne Cup Day.  Our only hope is if scientists can develop some kind of chocolate Myxomatosis to confine the population to a manageable level.

Or, then again, maybe it’s a different kind of problem altogether.  For years, the distance between Christmas and Easter seems to have been shrinking.  I don’t mean that in terms of weeks, days and months.  Rather, that products associated with Easter seem to be arriving on our shelves ever earlier.  For some time now, it has felt as though hot cross buns appear before the staff even get a chance to clear away the tinsel.  Who of us hasn’t been shocked by the appearance of the first Easter Egg and noted that it seems to arrive earlier every year? This is really taking that concept one frightening step further.

Phony Chocolate Santa is an attempt to merge Christmas and Easter together in one mega-retail event. I, for one, won’t stand for it. Chocolate Santa, if he’s necessary at all, should be shaped like Santa and not like an oversized anthropomorphic rodent.  Let Christmas be Christmas and Easter be Easter.  Who knows what kind of things might happen if they’re combined?  Will children be required to look for their presents in the garden as they would an Easter egg?  Surely not.  Will hot cross buns be finished off with a hot brandy sauce and set on fire? It seems unnecessary.

To those responsible for putting the Easter Bunny in Santa’s clothing I say this: back off. It’s been the longest of years and the last thing any of us needs is a takeover of Christmas by a hostile rabbit.  Give us some peace.  We’ll deal with Easter when we’re good and ready.  But for the moment, please show a little respect and allow the Yuletide to come in and wash over our feet.  Granted, I’ll eat your delicious chocolate, but let it be known that I’m not happy about.  Merry Christmas. Kind of.

A Remembrance of Hulk Pants Past

Some things can’t be explained.  It’s for the best.  Indeed, there are some questions so deep and so profound that solving them would threaten to unravel all of time and space.  Now that I’ve hit a milestone birthday, it’s time to look back at my life and return to some of the great mysteries that have followed me through the decades.  It’s a journey that’s taken all kinds of unexpected twists and turns but has taken me precisely where I always knew it would – it’s taken me to the Incredible Hulk.

It was one of my all-time favourite shows as a child, growing up.  Which is odd, given that it’s quite a complex story.  Each show essentially began with a recap as to the events that brought us to ‘Hulk world’.  Dr David Banner, who is introduced as ‘physician, scientist’ and, I think, ‘double denim enthusiast’, is trying to find a way to tap into the strength that exists within all humans.  Suffering a temporary shortage of guinea pigs, Dr Banner decides to conduct these experiments on himself.  This, I feel, may not be best practice. It’s certainly not the kind of malarkey you brag about when submitting to the New England Journal of Medicine.

Inevitably, an accidental overdose of gamma radiation changes his body chemistry.  It could happen to anyone.  I mean, who hasn’t been making coffee or tea and forgotten whether or not they’ve added the sugar?  Even professionals or whoever the local café near my office has making my coffee because (presumably) professionals are in short supply forget sometimes, judging by the fact that every fifth coffee I order has no sugar whatsoever in it. Presumably it’s much the same for gamma radiation.  You put some in, get distracted, can’t remember putting it in, so put it in again.  It doesn’t end there.

According to the voice over, when he gets angry or outraged ‘a startling metamorphoses occurs’. In this instance, Dr Banner’s changing a tyre in the rain and is having trouble with the wheel nuts when he goes and turns into the Incredible Hulk.  It’s exactly the same when my small skinny flat white turns up without any sugar in it.  Unluckily, when Dr Banner becomes the Hulk, he now has the power to get the wheel nuts off but, instead, squanders this super-human strength on flipping the car over entirely.  What a jerk.

For those unfamiliar with the show, Dr David Banner is a pretty regular, albeit well-educated, kind of guy.  The kind of person for whom the term ‘smart casual’ was pretty much invented.  I am, of course, choosing to overlook his near fanatical commitment to double denim for the moment.  But things get even tougher on the clothes front from that point on.  For whenever Dr Banner gets angry, he totally shreds his clothes, turns green and grows a mullet.

The credits explain that everyone thinks Dr David Banner is dead.  Confusingly, it then shows him standing beside his own grave with what looks to be a bag from Sportsgirl for no reason other than to confuse visitors. Apparently the Hulk is being pursued for a murder he didn’t commit and Dr Banner is being followed by an investigative reporter, Mr. McGee, who I assume works for TMZ.

The show is greatly aided by a top-notch cast is the form of Bill Bixby, who plays the tortured Dr Banner with consummate ease and Lou Ferrigno who is terrifying as the Hulk without CGI, instead relying solely on a bucket of food dye.

All of this is explained as the opening credits roll.  By the time the show starts, you feel like you’ve already been through an experience.  But for all the self-experimentation, gamma radiation and his perpetual fugitive state; the real question is this: how does the Hulk always manage to shred his clothes whilst preserving the structural integrity of his trousers?

 It’s quite the thing.  Turning into the Hulk makes an absolute mess of his shirts, but he never once seems to split his pants.  It’s nothing short of an absolute miracle.  It seems that whilst David Banner was searching for the secret to human strength and endurance, he may well have inadvertently invented maternity pants.

 Think about it.  Clothing that is designed to accommodate a transforming body. I, for one, would love to see Hulk-brand maternity pants on the market.  But whilst there were lunch boxes and drink bottles and even t-shirts, they steered clear of the maternity market.  What a missed opportunity.  The show lasted about eighty episodes over five seasons. I was shocked when it ended.

Perhaps I identified with the Hulk in that he represents anyone whose strength is underestimated. As a kid there was something appealing about the idea of being overlooked but able to transform in a moment of need.  It’s funny – the television shows of your youth can transform you back to another time.  Just the sound of that urgent piano and I’m back in the family room watching ‘The Incredible Hulk’ with my family.  That, perhaps, is an amazing transformation in itself.

A Question Mark Hanging Over All Of Us

Let me say at the outset, I’m not a fan.  Questions don’t belong on billboards, not ever.  As hapless commuters whiz past, they’re confronted with a demand for an answer but without any opportunity to supply it. Such is the nature of traffic. There’s barely enough time to absorb the question, much less cogitate and produce an answer of any value. It’s simply unfair on everyone. But this billboard was especially heinous.  

It was bright yellow with big black text ALL IN UPPER CASE WHICH IS VERY, VERY ANNOYING.  The billboard seemed to be questioning the need for lockdowns or vaccinations or both in combination when it’s still possible to contract and pass on Covid.  Or something like that.  There may have been a gratuitous aside about winged monkeys or a complaint that cereal boxes rarely come with free toys anymore, I can’t really remember – it all happened so quickly.  And whilst there’s a very simple answer to the billboard’s Covid question (‘Because science’ springs to mind), the banal nature of the enquiry was only one of its problems.

There was way too much text on the billboard.  It was as though someone had vomited random words that had then been put on display as a warning to others against the dangers of drinking seawater. Or similar.  There were words all over the place. The first chapter of ‘Lolita’ has fewer words than this obnoxious billboard.  It was the advertising equivalent of using a loudhailer to scream at the moon whilst pushing a shopping trolley. It read like something you’d expect someone to mutter under their breath as they wrap themselves in a space blanket shortly before smearing their body with peanut butter as a protection against the wrath of the sun god.

But that wasn’t the worst of it.  For all that text and all that UPPER CASE screaming, the question lacked one, fundamental thing. A question mark.  It’s one thing to deny Covid.  It’s another thing completely to deny the need for punctuation.  Somewhat ironically it begs the question; what kind of deranged non-punctuating pervert leaves a question mark off the end of a question?  (See what I did there?  I put a question mark at the end of my question.  Granted, the author of that pitiful billboard would consider that showing off, but there are standards to uphold.)

Brace yourself – here’s where it gets super dodgy.  This catastrophic upper case, punctuation-denying piece of anti-science word vomit bore the name of a political party.  The name of that political party featured the words ‘United’ and ‘Australia’ right next together without even a hint of irony.  How odd it is that such a divisive statement should come from someone who declares themselves interested in unity. Clearly, abandoning question marks is the least of their problems.  Any organization who misapprehends the meaning of the term ‘united’ is going to struggle with even the most basic medical advice, starting from ‘don’t stick a knife in an electrical socket’ right through to ‘don’t inject yourself with bleach to ward off coronavirus’.

We’ve come so far and given up so much to get here.  Billboards like this from people who struggle with basic sentence structure are more a form of heckling than anything else.  Indeed, the billboard could just as easily have featured a hand with a single raised finger and communicated much the same sentiment with the added bonus of not having offended the laws of grammar.

It must be said that there are quite a few interstate politicians who seem to be making these kinds of noises. Mostly, they come from parts of the country that have been relatively unscathed by the pandemic.  They’ve given up little, when compared to everyone here.  My only hope is that they don’t start turning up here in an ill-fated attempt to capitalize on people’s frustrations.  On the plus side, though, they won’t need to catch a plane to get here; having clearly decided to do all their travelling by bandwagon from this point on.

I was talking to a friend of mine who’d received multiple text messages from a particular politician spouting sentiments that they, no doubt, believe are billboard worthy.  She found it distressing and I think it’s understandable.  There’s something awful about being told by someone that everything you’ve endured or sacrificed over the past two years was for nothing.  To have someone attack that sense of consensus is upsetting.  I honestly believe they don’t know how much harm they’re doing. 

I have a question of my own. Should people who defy the laws of grammar be permitted to run for high office?  The answer, of course, is ‘no’ but that’s unlikely to deter them from doing so.  Enough’s enough.  I’m going to get myself a big old bucket of paint and put that question mark at the end of the billboard myself.  And, while I’m there, delete the word ‘United’ – which I’m beginning to think may be a simple spelling error – and replace it with ‘Untied’.  That would make more sense.  If those responsible for the billboard are reading this – assuming you can, in fact, read; consider replacing the billboard with a mirror and take a long, hard look at yourselves.  Just saying.

Testing Times: A Millstone for a Milestone

Milestone birthdays are really something.  People truly go out of their way to wish you the best. It’s delightful.  Having just gone through a pretty major birthday, I was thrilled to hear from people both near and far.  I even got a card from my local Member of Parliament. Sweet.  This week, however, I received a letter from the Nation’s Chief Health Officer. The words ‘happy birthday’ didn’t appear, but the message was clear: Congratulations! You’re now in an age bracket in which you’ll be pushed, prodded and generally put under the microscope.  Good grief.

The letter was to forewarn me. It told me, in simple and emotionally detached terms, I could expect to receive a bowel cancer screening kit through the mail.  It says something that they don’t just send you the kit; that they feel the need to tell you it’s coming rather than have it lob up on your doorstep unannounced along with the ‘Goonies’ t-shirt you ordered on ‘RedBubble’.  What it’s really saying is this: brace yourself.  I am now officially on notice.

The first thing I’ll do is express my disappointment that the Chief Health Officer communicated to me by letter, rather than by birthday card.  Personally, I’d love to receive a card that said, ‘Happy birthday!  Consider this testing kit a small gift from me to you!’   Or if, on balance, it was felt that a birthday card was too trivial a vessel for a message of such profound importance, then maybe something a little more personal.  Like a Gorilla Gram. 

There are some people who think that a Gorilla Gram could work to trivialize what is an extremely important and potentially life-saving message.  Those people, however, fail to appreciate the work that goes into delivering a really good Gorilla Gram.  It’s not just about strapping on a gorilla suit and spouting any old rubbish.  These people are masters of their craft and can be trusted to deliver sensitive information, albeit in gorilla form.  If the letter was intended to soften the blow, surely the distraction of a counterfeit primate would lighten the shock to the point that the recipient may fail to comprehend it altogether.

I get it.  The message is too serious for a Gorilla Gram, but not serious enough to warrant a home visit.  Rather, it’s somewhere in that awkward in-between space. Were it not for the subject matter, I’d say that the issue falls between two stools.  

This puts me in an invidious position.  One in which I am now awaiting the arrival of said testing kit.  I’m not sure what to expect.  A series of test tubes, a Bunsen burner and a microscope?  Maybe the kind of set up that comes with Walter White’s seal of approval (with a picture of Walt on the box giving a ‘thumbs up’)? I hope so.  Or a test that involves a series of equations and a sixty-minute time limit, complete with a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to the use of calculators?  I was never that great under pressure.  

I’m not afraid to say it – if the test arrives by truck, I may panic.  Not to put it too highly but if I hear the ‘reverse’ beeper and peek out through the blinds to see someone lowering a tray at the rear of a semi trailer, I could well scarper out the back door and over the neighbour’s fence.  Similarly, if the test is delivered by someone wearing a Hazmat suit, it’s possible that I may refuse to open the door altogether.

When it does turn up, I’ll need to get it out of the envelope / box / metal container stamped with the word ‘biohazard’, in which it arrived before use.  It begs the question whether the test itself will be suitably gift-wrapped.  I think that would be appropriate.  It is, after all, a birthday present of a kind.  

This is not the first time I’ve had an age-related birthday shock.  Immediately following an earlier milestone birthday, the professional association I belonged to wrote to both congratulate me advise that I had been removed from the list of ‘young practitioners’.  I was outraged.  Demanding that I restored to the list, I remain there to this day.  On this occasion, however, there’s no putting it off.

The thing I’m most concerned about is the fact that there will be instructions.  I am hopeless at following directions – a fact that has seen me banned for life from IKEA stores worldwide.  Who knows what kind of instructions they’ll be? Super-wordy instructions that try and tell a story?  Or ones that uses pictures and, if we’re being honest, leave a lot to the imagination?  Instructions and I have a somewhat difficult history.  There’s a very real risk that I’ll get it wrong.  Potentially resulting in even more correspondence from the Chief Health Officer.

Let me say this – to live in an age where you get a test through the mail that may well save your life is an amazing, glorious thing.  Will I take my test when it comes?  You bet I will.  I won’t go so far as to say that I’ll make a day of it, but I’m grateful that these programs exist.  Perhaps it’s the sense of anticipation that I’m struggling with.  Or the fact that it’s a tangible reminder of how things change as you get older.  Happy birthday to me.

Under The Influencer: All Hail the Halo!

It was a matter of necessity.  In order to photograph an object successfully, I needed appropriate lighting.  Scouring the Internet, I found a type of lighting that suited my needs; it was an adjustable ring light.  Just the thing for taking photographs of inanimate objects.  The catalogue referred to it as an ‘influencer’ light.  At the time of purchase, I had no idea what this meant.  It was, so I believed, a reference to a particular type of bulb.

Turns out that ‘influencer’ refers not to the light itself but to the person using it.  An ‘influencer’, apparently, is a person who uses social media to promote brands.  To the untrained eye – namely, my eye – this sounds a lot like unemployment.  Doubtless, people who do this kind of thing spend their days rolling around in Bitcoin in the far-reaches of cyberspace, but it’d be an odd thing to put on a customs declaration under  ‘occupation’ when arriving in another country.  The product is intended, in every sense, to show the ‘influencer’ in the best possible light.

Instantly, I was overwhelmed by the need to call JB Hi-Fi to tell them the light wasn’t to make me look better (if that were possible) but to help take photographs of various objects. When the person I was speaking to was either disconnected or became completely non-responsive after suffering a catastrophic lack of interest, I emailed a clarifying statement.  I heard nothing back.  I am now concerned that they have me pegged as some lunatic who spends all his time engaged in on line frippery and desperate self-promotion.  Which, of course, I would be if I knew how.  

There’s nothing worse than being misunderstood.  Being thought of as an ‘influencer’ is especially troubling.  The only people I’ve ever seen who have declared being an ‘influencer’ as their life goal have been on Married At First Sight. Each to their own, but anything associated with the toxic cesspit of human misery that is MAFs is surely worth avoiding.  It is, perhaps, no accident that ‘influencer’ sounds a lot to the ear like ‘influenza’ and is probably just as bad for you.  One minute, you’re picking up a light; the next you’re off to the doctors for a certificate.

When you’re young, you can dream of being anything you wish.  As a kid, most people I knew dreamed of opening the batting for Australia even if, like me, they couldn’t tell one end of a cricket bat from the other.  Or an astronaut.  Perhaps a plumber (thanks a lot, Mario!)  Or maybe a shape-shifting bounty hunter from another planet sent to overthrow the government before colonizing Earth and its inhabitants as part of a boarder intergalactic upheaval.  (Or maybe that was just me?)  At a certain point, your options seem to narrow.

I was hanging out with my nephew.  (Just being able to write given the past two years is something to celebrate!)  We were killing time and found ourselves in what I might loosely refer to as a ‘variety store’; the kind that stocks pretty much everything from kitchen utensils, to hair gel to flux capacitors and all points in between.  As we roamed the aisles, hemmed in by shelves crammed with all kinds of goods, we came across a section for costumes.

They had a startling array of dress ups available for sale.  But, for reasons I can only assume relate to a deep desire to avoid being sued, the names of some of the costumes didn’t match their appearance.  One costume looked a lot like a Smurf, but called itself, ‘Blue Elf’.  An Oompa Loompa costume was titled ‘Red Candy Maker Boy’.  ‘Kid’s Space Rebellion Fighter’ was obviously Star Wars and ‘Green Plumber Boy’ looked a lot like a certain figure from Nintendo. But there was an exception; one that didn’t fear the laws of intellectual property.  The ‘Children Jesus Costume’ was exactly as it sounds.  

It begs the question: who sends their kid off to a fancy dress party dressed as Jesus?  It would, I feel, place a lot of pressure on the child to live up to the hype.  To turn water into Fanta.  To feed thirty kids with a slice of fairy bread and a single chocolate crackle.  To raise Sparkles, the Highland Terrier who’s buried in the backyard just beyond the Hills Hoist, from the grave.  To walk across the family swimming pool.  And that’s even without mentioning the additional pressure to achieve one hundred per cent accuracy in ‘Pin the Tail on the Donkey’.  Better off to dress them up as Spiderman and be done with it.

Then it struck me – Ishould purchase ‘Children Jesus Costume’. With a few adjustments, I could adapt something intended for a nine year old and make it fit me.  Better still, I could take my influencer light and attach it to the back of my neck so that a saintly halo appears over my head. Then update all my profile pictures –Instagram, Linked In and my customer account at JB Hi-Fi. 

 The irony is this – if after publishing this story there’s a sudden rush to buy ‘Children Jesus Costume’, I will have become an influencer, like it or not.  It will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  As I sit here in my robes, my influencer light glowing gently above my head, I think that sounds just about right.

Fire. Water. Wireless Digital Printer

‘Is there no end to your talents?’  They were words of kindness, after I had had unveiled my latest creative masterpiece.  As flattering as the remark was, there’s no getting away from the fact there is a very real, unambiguous answer.  The answer to the question ‘is there no end to your talents?’ is, without any fear of overstatement, “yes”.  Yes, there most certainly is.  That end arrives suddenly like a sheer cliff drop to oblivion the moment that anything remotely practical arises.

It was purchased as a matter of necessity.  Changed circumstances meant that a new printer was required.  After days of research, I made an informed decision and, between lockdowns, went out and bought it.  As silly as it may sound, the fact of choosing, purchasing and collecting the printer felt like an achievement on par with, if not scaling Mount Everest, then at least getting to base camp in a shopping trolley whilst blindfolded and juggling.

Having achieved the near impossible by purchasing the printer, I then completely lost my mind altogether and unpacked it.  This, it must be said, is totally out of character for me.  It’s quite common for me to buy something and leave it in its box – which I consider to be its natural environment – for some considerable period.  Gleaming and new, the printer sat there looking perfect.  ‘Stay gold, Pony Boy’, I whispered under my breath as I began to clear away all the packing materials that had, moments earlier, been cradling my printer.  What I couldn’t do, however, is print anything.  That’s because I hadn’t taken that final step and set it up.

Once upon a time, setting up an appliance meant taking it out of the box in which it came and plugging it in. Simple, but brutally effective. Things are so very different now, with a tertiary qualification in engineering being if not mandatory, then at least highly desirable.  Despite the fact of describing itself as ‘wireless’, there are still wires to be plugged in.  This is often followed by a short voodoo ceremony in which the gods of the Internet are summoned through the art of interpretative dance and, possibly, a goat sacrifice.  

Now that I think about it, summoning up the Internet gods involves a ceremony almost identical to the one in ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’, which explains why the instruction manual recommends wearing a fedora when assembling.

I put it off for as long as possible until the unrelenting gaze of necessity wouldn’t permit me to leave it any longer.  Taking a deep breath and putting on my fedora whilst humming the entire John Williams’ score, I got to work.

It’s not so much a lack of interest as it is a paralyzing fear of failure.  What if I try and can’t figure it out?  Lockdown is much like outer space in that no one can hear you scream.  But not only did lockdown mean my emotive outbursts were for naught, it prevented me calling on more talented family members to come and help me out.  I would have to use a radical mix of ingenuity and rat cunning. Like MacGyver.  Indeed, to set this printer up I would need to go the full MacGyver.  

I looked at the instructions. I stared out the window. Then I looked at the instructions some more.  Things clicked into place.  There was a whirring sound.  I pushed a button and a display panel lit up.  Then I printed a document.  I stood in awe as the page slid out from the machine.  Like a child, I eagerly snatched at it before reading a short message that said, ‘Nice work.  Love, MacGyver.’

I was overjoyed.  I felt like that monkey in 2001: A Space Odyssey who’s just figured out how to use a bone as a tool.  It probably helped that I was playing ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ by Richard Strauss in the background.  Mind you, if I get up tomorrow morning and find a giant monolith in my living room, I’m going to be quite put out.  Unless, of course, I can hang my washing on it.  Then I won’t mind so much.

I’m mindful there’s more than one perspective here.  From the point of view of those who made the printer, they think they’ve dumbed down the process to the point that a blindfolded Chihuahua could do it. Whereas, from my perspective, assembling the printer is a technological triumph on par with putting a man on the moon.

With the printer connected, it felt like a moment if not in the evolution of humankind generally, then at least for me.  Putting it together isn’t really an act of technological brilliance but about overcoming the fear of failure.  Everyone, I think, has a wireless digital printer in their lives somewhere. That thing they never get around to because the fear of not succeeding is simply too great.  But I am living proof that with patience, encouragement from MacGyver and the music of Richard Strauss playing at an almost obscene volume, that anything is possible.  For me, it’s about moving on to the next challenge. Which, in this case, is in the living room, sitting in a box.  It’s a television I bought when the old one decided not to work anymore. Just let me find my fedora first.

The Middle Age of Reason

Once more, the dance begins.  It’s the one that occurs annually between my brother and I when our birthdays roll around.  You see there’s just under a year between us which means that, for a short time, we’re the same age.  It’s been that way since we were kids and I see no prospect of it changing any time soon.  So it is that my brother has now, once more, caught up to me.  

The meaning, however, of this temporary state of equilibrium has changed over time.  Suffice to say, it used to be an opportunity for my brother to claim that he was no longer my younger brother.  Now, however, the tables, chairs and possibly the curtains have turned.  This overlap now definitely works to my advantage.

I can still hear him – a broad grin wrapped around his face telling me that I was no longer ‘the boss’ of him.  Upon hearing this, I was always somewhat conflicted. Firstly, I was unaware that I had been ‘the boss’ of my younger brother.  Had I known, it’s fair to say I would have taken full advantage of the awesome power and responsibility it brings.  Secondly, there was the small matter of mathematics.  

Foolishly, I would try to explain that I was still older by several hundred days and that this would never change.  He was immune to my attempts to reason.  In retrospect, that was part of the fun – he knew that refusing to concede would drive me crazy.  Which it duly did.

But things are different now.  Whereas once, being the same age was seen by my brother as something to celebrate, middle age has seen a recalibration of sorts.  The intersection of our Venn diagram is now seen by my brother as something to fear.  Rather than have him lord it over me, it is now I who lords it over him.  Somewhat callously, I now repeat to him the same thing he used to say to me – ‘we’re the same age’. Somewhat gratuitously, I have then added the word ‘sucker’.

Denial is not only a river in Egypt but a powerful force that lurks in all of us.  My brother has been insisting that he is still ‘mid-forties’ even though he’s much closer to fifty.  It’s obviously a point of some sensitivity.  As an older brother (for all but four days a year), it is my duty to exploit this mercilessly.  I do this using a variety of techniques. 

Each year, I make a calendar full of family photos. On my brother’s birthday, there’s a picture of him, under which I posted the caption ‘late forties’.  It sat on the wall at my father’s house all year.  Only last week, I sent him a picture of it.  As soon as lockdown was lifted, he was straight over there with a big, black texta, crossing out ‘late’ and scrawling ‘mid’ over the top.  It was an act that reeked of desperation and texta (so aromatic!).

Earlier this week, I sent him a gift.  I included an inscription that simply said ‘happy fiftieth birthday’.  It is, so I will claim, a matter of rounding up.  He later sent a photo of himself holding the card, pointing towards the message with a look of consternation on his face.  The message accompanying it declared with the force of multiple exclamation points, ‘mid forties!!!!’

But if it’s my brother’s birthday, it means that very soon I have a birthday of my own to contend with.  Sadly, for me, there’s no way I can use the term ‘mid-forties’ and keep a straight, albeit slightly creased, face.  It’s a big one, and there’s no getting around it. ‘Fifty’ sounds so gargantuan, but it is what it is.  To prepare, I did some research.  When I was younger, ‘research’ was something you did at a library. Now it’s something you ‘Google’. The results were both perplexing and concerning.

I typed in ‘fifty is the new…’ hoping to get a much younger virtual age for myself.  The first thing that came up was a question: ‘is fifty the new thirty?’ Excitedly, I clicked on the link expecting to be showered with life affirming declarations of positivity only to find a single word – ‘no’.  The search also coughed up other helpful titles such as ‘how to survive turning fifty’ which makes it sound too much like a near-run thing.  There were variations on the theme including ‘fifty is the new forty’ and, perhaps with my brother in mind, ‘fifty is the new mid-forties’.

I’ve never much been a fan of my birthday.  I have, however, been lucky to have a brother whose birthday was right next to mine, meaning that I never really had to go through all the fuss on my own.  Fifty, it seems, is the new fifty.  It means that all those people I went to school with are reaching the same point.  It’s impossible not to think of all those mullets and perms and to wonder what became of their owners.  It seems like both forever ago and only yesterday.

Tonight, I’ll see my brother.  He’ll use the term ‘mid-forties’ more often than can be considered reasonable in the circumstances.  It will be a joyous occasion all the same.  Not least for the fact that we can see each other in person. And even if my brother is currently growing a beard that screams ‘Santa-in-training’, when he uses the term ‘mid-forties’ I won’t say a thing.  Other than, of course, ‘happy birthday Cameron.’ 

Betrayed! How Netflix Turned My Heart to Goop

You know how it is.  You feel as though you have a connection, that you’ve developed an understanding to the point you can almost read each other’s thoughts.  Then, without warning, something happens and you realize that everything you believed in was a house of cards built on shifting sands after an unexpected Pandora’s worm is opened.  In this instance, I thought Netflix and I were friends. I was wrong.  Dead wrong.

It began with an email, one that seemed to be doing me a favour rather than the full-throated yodel of betrayal that it was.  It began by saying, ‘Stuart, we just added a TV show you might like.’ It sounds harmless.  Until, of course, you scroll down and discover the television program in question is the latest from Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘Goop’ series.  If that wasn’t enough to catapult your breakfast back over your lips, this one has ‘intimacy’ as its focus.  

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not angry with Gwyneth Paltrow.  I’m not a fan of ‘Goop’ and from a scientific point of view ‘Goop’ and Gwyneth are unlikely to get ‘The Curiousity Show’ stamp of approval.  Indeed, Rob and Deane are notable for their absence from any of Goop’s promotional activities.  It’s Netflix with whom I’m disappointed.  How could they possibly get it so wrong?  After all the time we’ve spent together, they really don’t know me at all.

They caught me off guard by sending an email that addressed me by name.  This brazen act of familiarity was all the more surprising given they’ve never acknowledged any of my emails or suggestions.  (Sample idea – choosing who reads the ‘dubbed’ version.  I, for one, would welcome the cast of ‘Star Wars’ reading ‘The Squid Games’.)  

I immediately analyzed my viewing history.  For the past couple of months, I’ve been obsessed with European mysteries.  They’ve been set in a variety of countries – France, Belgium, Poland, Iceland and Finland.  I’ve been watching them with subtitles rather than dubbed in the misguided belief that this will help me learn another language.  So far, all I’ve learned is the word for ‘okay’ in France, Belgium, Poland, Iceland and Finland is…. ‘okay’.  I can’t say the word ‘goop’ has been uttered by anyone, even though I wouldn’t be surprised if ‘goop’ was Icelandic for ‘oddly-scented candle’.

It’s hard to see the link between European police procedurals and a show that promises ‘Courageous couples on a journey towards pleasure and deeper intimacy’.  Frankly, watching that does not sound like my idea of a good night in.  Pleasingly, it then suggests that these couples will be assisted on their journey by ‘Gwyneth Paltrow and a team of experts’.  I, for one, appreciate that Gwyneth has been excluded from the team of experts for reasons most likely associated with consumer and competition law. Although, for the sake of completeness, I would have preferred the blurb to take a leaf out of a newscaster’s book and add the word ‘alleged’ immediately before the word ‘expert’.

I should be used to it. Who amongst us hasn’t had a birthday and received a gift from someone they love that was completely and utterly off the mark?  A Celine Dion box set?  Tickets to an Andre Rieu concert that aren’t for the sole purpose of heckling?  A lifetime membership of the Bros fan club? Let’s be honest – even those that know us well get things catastrophically wrong occasionally.  Maybe I should cut Netflix a bit of slack.  The answer, perhaps, lies in me not criticizing Netflix but in returning the favour with suggestions of my own.

It seemed only appropriate that I write back.  I did so with a series of suggestions for well, series, they might well like to commission.  Firstly, I noted the success of the film ‘Eurovision’ starring Will Ferrell.  Few people know that Johnny Logan, also known as ‘Mr. Eurovision’, was born in Frankston.  The new Netflix series will follow my efforts to have a forty-foot statue of Johnny Logan built, modeled on Rio’s ‘Christ the Redeemer’, and plonked on top of Oliver’s Hill.  

After the success of their series, ‘The Last Dance’, perhaps a hard-hitting sporting documentary based on the 1985 season of the Tyabb Yabbies football club under 15s as they reach the dizzy heights of second last place on the league ladder.  It will make history as they first series to be in English with English subtitles.  I, for one, am ready to spill the beans.  My last suggestion centres around my lawnmower.  I’m not saying that it should star in its own series – only that there are better things to do than watch television, particularly when ‘Goop’ is on.

I know that Gwyneth Paltrow is a regular reader of this column, so I’ll choose my words carefully.  I won’t be watching the latest installment from the ‘Goop’ franchise.  I’ll be too busy mowing the lawn and using the clippings to build a model of my Johnny Logan statue. If that doesn’t suit the people at Netflix, then as they like to say in Finland, ‘okay’.

Weekend at Spike’s, the Amish Garden Gnome

They were in a box.  I’ve no idea how long they’d been there, but I’d estimate at least two house moves.  They were items that, at a point in time, were deemed essential enough to pack but surplus to requirements when it came to unpacking.  Say what you will about lockdown, but it certainly throws a spotlight on every little chore you’ve been putting off for the past decade or two.  It was time to unpack the box.

There were pictures in frames that varied widely in both quality and importance.  One was of my great, great grandfather taken around the turn to the last century.  As photos go, it’s not especially flattering.  Whilst he’s clearly dressed up for the occasion, his eyes are closed (it’s a family trademark) and although he’s remembered to bring his beard, his forgotten his moustache.  The overall effect is one of ‘Amish garden gnome’.  

It’s a point that needs to be made; this photo of my great, great grandfather is of him looking his absolute best.  And yet he still looks as though he’s been dragged backwards through a hedge immediately before having been tossed in front of the camera.  He looks about two hundred years old.  According to the inscription on the back, he was about thirty when the picture was taken.  Clearly, here was a man who’d lived a very hard life.

Indeed, so horrific is the picture it’s impossible not to wonder whether, in fact, it was taken post mortem.  Although very few people in nineteenth century Ireland were that familiar with “Weekend At Bernie’s”, it looks as if my great, great grandfather has gone ‘the full Bernie’ in this photo.  It looks like a Selfie from the afterworld. And despite the fact that my great, great grandfather was a ‘James’, my father has written on the back referring to him as ‘Spike’.  

Here’s the thing: Spike is not my only relative.  And yet it was Spike that my father decided to frame and give to me as a keepsake.  The reasons for doing so remain as mysterious as Spike’s limp bowtie.  It might be that my father thought it was funny (and, to be fair, it is) or as some kind of warning. As if to say this is what I, before long, could look like.  If I’m being honest, in a certain kind of light there’s a passing resemblance. And by ‘passing resemblance’ I mean that if you were to notice a resemblance, you’d be guaranteed to pass by.  Perhaps it’s a warning directed not at me but at those around me. 

But that wasn’t the only photo in my box of clutter.  There were framed photos of my two eldest nephews when they were still quite tiny.  Of me, on my birthday, holding them both; the younger one wearing a ‘Dorothy the Dinosaur’ t-shirt and all of us looking happy down in Tyabb.  Amazingly, each of us has our eyes open.  They’re both young men in their twenties now.  Too old to be wearing ‘Dorothy the Dinosaur’ t-shirts and certainly too big for me to be holding one in each arm.  The sight of it took me to a different time.

Not all the photos were occupying the frames held such sentimental value.  One picture frame contained a photo of Gary Coleman.  If that name doesn’t ring a bell, you may remember him as ‘Arnold’ from the TV show ‘Diff’rent Strokes’.  Not that I ever knew him.  The picture was left over from a time many years ago when I was renting and the owners had elected to sell, meaning that strangers would be traipsing through my house on a regular basis.  As a small but, I feel, potent protest, I replaced all the pictures with photos of celebrities, including Gary.  

Gary looked over the living room as erstwhile strangers inspected.  Whilst that was decades ago, I’d managed to take Gary with me from house to house ever since. Before you say ‘whatchoo talkin’ about, Stuart?’ I can only say that not everything we take forward is by design. Sometimes it simply works out that way.

There was a paining, too.  Of a small bush shack in the middle of nowhere, painted by my grandfather back in the eighties.  He was a creative guy, albeit not always entirely original. He had a shed behind the carport. It was an entire universe of tools and ephemera and carried a heavy scent of turpentine.  It was clearly a special place.  In that shed was a paining of a young woman with a headscarf and a pearl earring.  

Even as a child, I thought this particular painting was quite striking and pretty good.  It was only as an adult that I learned it was a copy of Johannes Vermeer’s famous work.  In that shed, it didn’t really matter that it was someone else’s paining.  Because in that shed if nowhere else, it belonged to my grandfather who had willed it into existence.  Take that, Johannes!

These pictures are now in my living room.  Mostly, they remind me of life as it was and, someday, will be again.  As I look forward to meeting family again in this, the longest of years, it’s a timely reminder.  That is, of course, except for Spike, whom I feel is watching my every move; which is quite the achievement when you’ve got your eyes closed.  

Sitting on the Randy Van Hornes of a Dilemma

There’s a record in a frame that hangs in my house. Unfortunately, it’s not a platinum, gold, silver or even polystyrene disc denoting sales in the greater Tyabb region, but a gift from my father.  Worse still, the framed record is not one I had anything to do with but one by ‘The Randy Van Horne Singers’.  I’ve never listened to it.  Having it in a frame kind of ensures that I never will.  I should be grateful.  There’s a sticker on the front of the frame that simply reads: In case of emergency, break glass.

This is just one of several framed artifacts gifted to me in a picture frame by my father. There’s also his Wham! T-shirt (no, that’s not a typo).  It too got the full framing treatment after I wrote a story about it. About how my father managed to get a free t-shirt from a work colleague and then tried to gift it to me. To a teenage boy, nothing could be less cool than a Wham! t-shirt and wearing such a t-shirt would be to invite derision from everyone I ever met from that point on.   Which, for any teenager, is a horrifying thought.

I was openly repulsed by the offer.  Despite or, more likely, because of that, my father insisted on wearing said Wham! t-shirt whenever and wherever he could.  It was an on-going source of embarrassment on such a scale that my father thought it worth preserving for all time, and put it in a frame. The reasons for Randy Van Horne’s elevation to the ‘McCullough Hall of Frame’ are more to do with my persistent, albeit incredibly well founded criticisms of my father’s record collection.  

Most of his LPs came from a record club. Presumably, the first rule of record club is you do not talk about record club.  The second rule of record club is that, under no circumstances, should you play anything they send you.  Ever.  They seemed to specialize in unknown pieces by well-known composers. With a generous serve of the Randy Van Horne Singers.  But I really shouldn’t judge.  For when it comes to criticizing people for their musical choices, I am very much occupying a glass house, full of glass modular furniture with a glass front door with Mick, Keef, Ronnie and the rest of the Stones as guests whom I am ready to throw at the slightest provocation.

I didn’t collect the dodgy music of others.  I made my own dodgy music with my friends. It’s one thing to horrify your peers with your poor musical choices but it’s another thing altogether to be able to clear a dance floor as if someone had just yelled ‘fire!’ with one of your original compositions.  There are classmates of mine who are probably still recovering from the time we performed for the end of year school dance at the Bittern Town Hall. Some of them have probably avoided music altogether since that fateful night.  A case of ‘once Bittern, twice shy’ if you will.

Sadly, our performances are not framed and hanging on my wall like the Randy Van Horne Singers.  I do, however, have a DVD of one of our gigs.  It was in Cheltenham, I think, which I regarded then as ‘the city’.  I was wearing a shirt with a suit vest because, frankly, that’s how things rolled in the eighties. My brother was wearing a really big woolly jumper and had used so much hairspray that there was probably a hole in the ozone named in his honour.  

We played our particular brand of rock and roll to a group of impassive people who, presumably, had remained only because they were unclear where to find the exits.  As each song finished, there was applause, although mostly I was only one clapping.  But as challenging as the music was, it was the sight of myself attempting to dance that proved most difficult of all.  What I lacked in skill, poise and grace, I attempted to make up for with sheer, frenzied energy.  The results were close to catastrophic as limbs flailed like one of those blow-up things they put outside car parks to get your attention.  It was not a pretty sight.

But despite the fact that I couldn’t much sing and certainly couldn’t dance, my friends all stood beside me on stage.  Whatever limitations we had as a group, we had learned to work together to create something.  We were a team.  That band was not so much about music (as the DVD made clear) but about friendship.

I learned last week that the father of our drummer, Chris, had passed away.  It had been years since we’d been in touch, but that week we were on the phone to each other.  Even after all this time, the sound of his voice was so familiar to me and it made me happy to hear him speak even in that moment of impossible grief. We made plans of a kind.  To get the band back together.  To be in each other’s company once again. And, possibly, to dance.

I find I’m making a lot of lists.  They’re lists of ‘things to do when this mess is over’. I’ve added ‘band reunion’ to it. For all the catastrophe of the past eighteen months, I’m starting to think about what’s important.  That very much includes my old band.  I can’t wait.  Maybe we’ll play a song or two.  And if we do, I’ll take a picture rather than make a DVD. Then I’ll take that picture and put it in a frame and on my wall, right next to the Randy Van Horne Singers. Where it belongs.