When Your Grocery Trolley Is A Handcart to Hell

You’d think I’d have gotten the gist by now.  After months of practice, I’m still no better at it. I’ve studied them, poked and prodded them, sent samples down to the lab, soaked them, baked them and even set fire to them (albeit by accident – don’t leave anything next to the hotplate!). But despite my extensive and, some would say, creative research, I still have not mastered the whole face-mask caper.  

I know what you’re thinking – if a tree falls in a forest, does anybody hear?  And, quite possibly, why did they ever mess with the formula for Barbecue Shapes?  (It was destined to end badly for all concerned.)  But you’re also thinking – what kind of fool struggles to wear a face mask?  All you need to do is loop the elastic over your ears, ensure the mask is facing forwards rather than backwards, and away you go.  That’s where you’re wrong.

I wear glasses.  In fact, I’ve worn glasses since I was a teenager.  And it’s been fine, up until now.  But what the last miserable eighteen months has taught me is that wearing a mask and glasses simultaneously is pretty much impossible.  I can get by without them if I’m just walking around, but I am totally incapable of reading anything.  At all.  

When you’re wearing a mask, glasses fog up.  They just do.  Instead of lenses through which you can see, they become entirely frosted over in an instant. This has proved especially impractical when shopping.  Once, I’d prepare an inventory (something I refer to as a ‘shopping list’), travel to the supermarket and purchase the things I’d already decided on.  It sounds simple, but it worked for me.  Having glasses that fog up because I’m wearing a mask makes this somewhat simple act a whole lot more complicated.

I’ve now officially given up. By which I mean I’m now no longer wearing my glasses to the supermarket.  This has resulted in a number of challenges.  Firstly, there’s the issue of the list itself. Whereas once, I wrote my shopping list on a small piece of paper that I kept in my pocket.  I’ve now had to go with something bigger so I can increase the size of my writing.  For this reason, I’m using a bed sheet.  

Because I’m now using a bed sheet on which to write my shopping list, the first thing I need to write each week is ‘bed sheet’.  Permanent marker is nothing if not unambiguous in terms of what it does, and I need a new sheet each week to replace the last.  But despite the fact that my list is now written in letters that are the size of a three year old child, I still have trouble reading the list without my glasses.  Which is disappointing, given that if left on an oval it could probably be read from space.  This means that shopping has become an essentially random act.

My list begins with the basics – rice, bananas, yoghurt and milk.  However, last week I returned from the supermarket with shoe polish, string, a litre of prune juice and pigs’ trotters.  Back home and with mask off and glasses on, I shuddered as an image of the calamitous sandwich that results from such a cavalcade of ingredients took my mind hostage.  It got my entire week off on the wrong (pigs’) foot.

This is so much worse than simply not being able to distinguish between full and low fat.  I am getting the wrong products entirely.  The first hint of this comes when I reach the checkout and the eyebrows of the person working there begin to rise. As a result, I started avoiding the human checkouts in favour of the ‘self serve’ version.  Even there, the checkout lit up like a poker machine as I tried to scan what turned out to be a bucket of tripe.  Somewhat ironically, I’m making a complete spectacle of myself because I don’t have my glasses.

I’ll admit I’m feeling listless.  By which I mean I’ve now given up using a list at all and am simply using either my intuition or, if you prefer, ‘the Force’.  Clearly my intuition leaves a lot to be desired and I’m beginning to regret dropping out of my Certificate III Jedi Training course.  Today, I returned only with tea.  I swear I bought things at multiple locations within the store, but have returned only with enough tea to see me through the rest of my life.  Granted, there are some variations as to the type of tea, which is nice, but it won’t make for much of a sandwich.

There will be some reading this, screaming at their newspapers as to why I don’t order on line whilst I still have my glasses and let the food come to me.  It’s a fair point, but I’m reluctant to give up a legitimate reason to leave the house at this time.  Instead, I’ll need to embrace the randomness of it all and make the best of things.  It’s what we’re all doing, really.  

I’ve been working all day in the kitchen trying to whip up something tasty, but I’m going to need a much larger whip if I’m to succeed.  Using tripe, stock, potatoes, string and a pomegranate, I’ve been boiling the whole thing up for the last twelve hours and the time has finally arrived where I can no longer avoid tasting it.  I raise the spoon to my lips.  The results were, predictably, offal.  Glasses or not, I should have seen that one coming.

The Eric Estrada Estrangement Fiasco

I stand corrected.  Just a week ago, I wrote about how my father had kept an empty tin can with pictures stuck on it as either an act of sentimental parental devotion or administrative oversight.  It was, so I claimed, proof that my father had never given up hope that I might one day produce an even greater piece of art.  Or, alternatively, that he really liked ‘Ponch’ from CHiPs. Either way, I was touched that he’d kept it all these years.  But that was a week ago and, frankly, a lot can change in a week.  It was shortly after the story was published that I received a phone call – from my father.

I began by wishing him a happy Father’s Day.  He began by telling me that he no longer had the tin can pencil holder.  His account from that point on became ever less reliable.  He initially suggested that the tin can pencil holder could well be a figment of my imagination. This was difficult to hear. Not only was the tin can pencil holder a cherished childhood memory, it has formed the backbone of my curriculum vitae for the past thirty years and it now seems that every job I’ve held in that period was under false pretences.

 Before there was a chance to get to the bottom of whether or not the object had ever existed or was the product over an over-stimulated imagination in what can only be described as a stationery-based fever-dream, my father changed tack.  He then speculated that the item hadn’t held a place on his desk for at least twenty years.  Granted, it’s fair to say that during this pandemic time has lost all meaning and the term itself may be removed from the dictionary as a result, but I recalled seeing it just last Christmas.  It was then that our conversation took a truly dark and startling turn.

 He suggested my brother had taken it.  Typical!  Granted, it’s hard to fathom a motive.  Or, at least, a motive beyond wanting an empty tin can with a picture of Eric Estrada glued onto it.  But it’s the sheer, breath-taking improbability of the thing that, in many ways, makes it the perfect crime.  No one’s going to suspect you of stealing something that is so obviously without any tangible value whatsoever, to say nothing of the fact that it’s also devoid of artistic merit.

Naturally, I later put this accusation to my brother who denied it.  Perhaps he denied it a little too strongly.  But, despite my reservations I was ultimately prepared to accept that he had no need for a place to put his pencils as all his work was done on a laptop.  Sure, it stung a little to hear that something you created is no longer considered useful, but he made a compelling point.  An uneasy peace arose between us as I made a mental note to monitor ‘Gumtree’ for the next few weeks in the event he tried and offload his ill-gotten gain.

My father then said something that sent a chill racing through my veins.  ‘Perhaps it’s in the shed’.  Without fear of overstatement, everything that ever existed is in my father’s shed.  Jimmy Hoffa is in the shed (behind the wooden water-skis, probably).  Lost civilizations, too, wondering how to get past the large wooden dresser that’s been sitting their for decades.  Whatever you’ve lost; be it a pair of shoes, a watch or your youth, chances are you’d find it in my father’s shed.  Being sent to the shed is not so much about a change in location as it is a destiny.

Obviously, for something to be transported from the house to the shed requires an active decision on the part of my father.  A decision he’d not seen the need to take over previous decades.  It posed the question – what else had my father decided to send to the shed during lockdown?  There’s a banner that hangs just outside his study.  It says ‘We Love Our Dad’ and there’s a computer-generated image of myself and my siblings.  Because this was done in the mid-eighties, it looks as though our faces have been deliberately blurred out, like we’re whistleblowers appearing on television.  

I have distinct memories of one of my brothers looking as though he had no eyebrows at all and that these were added later with a grey lead pencil.  Given that time has not been kind to it, has it too been sent to the shed?  I don’t want to panic, but I fear for the safety of my football trophies.  They’re so amazingly small that they’d be completely swallowed up by the shed, never to be seen again.  That said, if he’s relocated the photos of us as kids where we were all dressed the same as though we were members of a cult, that wouldn’t be so bad.

Only my father would use a winter of discontent for spring-cleaning.  When the day finally comes and I can get back to Tyabb, who knows what I’ll find.  Or not find, as the case may be.  All I know is that when I stick my head in to my father’s study, I won’t see Eric Estrada’s smiling face.  

Then again, perhaps it’s all just a ruse and he knows exactly where the tin can pencil holder is.  There’s only one way to find out.  When I finally get around to shopping for my father, I will buy him dozens and dozens of pencils.  Either the tin can pencil holder will magically appear or there will be complete pencil mayhem.  It may seem petty, but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.  And I have plenty of pencils with which to draw it.

For Father’s Day, Wherever It Finds You

At first glance, it’s just an old tin can.  It sits where it has for the past forty or so years, on my father’s desk.  But more than just a piece of recycling gone astray, this empty can represents the pinnacle of my career as an artist.  Of course, he was not to know that this would be as good as it would get. I can’t recall naming it, but if I were to do so, it would be called, ‘Empty Tin Can Pencil Holder With Random Pictures Stuck On.’  As the artist, it was incumbent on me to sign it but I failed to do so.  It was, I think, an oversight on my part.

The tin can is decorated with pictures that I chose, reflecting the things that were most important to me at that time of my life. Eric Estrada’s on there.  He played ‘Ponch’ on the television show, ‘CHiPs’ about the California Highway Patrol.  Whilst Eric and his co-star Larry Wilcox were important figures to me, I doubt very much that my father felt the same way.  Despite this, he thought no less of my work. In fact, I think the piece generally positioned with the ‘Ponch’ side facing out.  

Fonzie may also be on there.  For people of a certain age, there was a time when Arthur Fonzarelli from ‘Happy Days’ was the epitome of what it was to be a cool adult. A role model, if you will. As a stage of development, though, the ‘Fonzie’ stage is somewhat fleeting.  The older you get, the more you realize that having the men’s toilets as your ‘office’ really isn’t that flash.  To say nothing of living above the garage of the parents of your best friend who has, himself, long since moved out of home seasons earlier to work at the Milwaukee Journal before totally going off the rails and directing ‘Far and Away’.

There’s probably a football on there.  Maybe even an Essendon player.  This was clearly before I was officially declared a ‘lost cause’ on the football front.  He must have had such high hopes for me. As I grew up, there was a succession of Essendon Football Club jumpers, always several sizes too big, that my father purchased.  Either he was being thrifty and knew we’d grow into them or, as was probably the case, he had only a loose idea of how tall we were and simply erred on the side both of caution and larger sizing.  

Those jumpers sat on our tiny frames like tents, billowing in the wind.  When the breeze was particularly strong, the jumpers were like a sailboat spinnaker and would become bloated with air before capsizing the occupant.  We often wore them when playing ‘kick to kick’ in the backyard, along with our gumboots.  It must be said that the task of kicking a football is made all the more difficult by the wearing of gumboots.  In fact, gumboots are only one notch up from clogs, in this regard.  Our father, however, was relentless.  Not for him, the gentle drop kick in our general direction so that we’d have some hope of marking the ball.  Rather, he’d dispatch a wild torpedo punt that was not kicked to you so much as it was launched into orbit.  My brother and I would spend ages running (to the extent that running is possible in gumboots) after the ball before returning it, inadequately, to the other side of the yard.

His approach to cricket was equally punishing. Rather than a tennis ball, he favoured something called a ‘composite’ ball.  It was something akin to a miniature cannonball that he’d fire down the pitch with all the speed he could muster.  They produced the most spectacular bruises imaginable.  I, for one, have nearly given up hope that the bruising will, in fact, ever subside.  It’s no surprise to anyone that I failed as a cricketer. This is despite the fact that my bedroom had wallpaper decorated with cricketers.  What an exercise in optimism that was.  Although it’s been thirty years since I left that house, the cricketers remain in place.  

If my father was disappointed to receive an empty tin can pencil holder for Father’s Day, he didn’t show it.  Nor did he hesitate to give it pride of place on his desk.  I wonder whether he thought to himself that he’d keep it there until I invariably produced something better the following year when I was more proficient, only to realize as each year rolled by, that this was my artistic high-water mark.  To make things worse, my brothers and sisters created their own father’s day projects that were so obviously superior to mine. 

It’s hard, I think, when you have a younger sibling who’s been blessed with every creative skill you lack.  The year I produced a tin can with pictures stuck on it was probably the year my younger brother produced as twelve foot bird cage that played ‘Sink the Bismarck’ whenever you opened the door.

Like a lot of people, I won’t see my father on Father’s Day this year.  I wish I could be in Tyabb.  I wish I could step into that study and see all the gifts of Father’s Days’ past littered around the room.  Instead, I’ll wait.  And when the time comes (as it surely will), I’ll ask him to pencil in a time in his diary for us to catch up.  At least he knows where to find his pencils.  Until then, I’ll be making his gift.  It’s a tin can decorated with things that are important to me.  There’s no Eric Estrada, no Fonzie either; just pictures of my family.  Because that’s what’s important to me now.  

Scammers, Slammers and Sponge Cake Ninjas

I have difficult news.  This week, I received multiple phone calls from a number I didn’t recognize. When I answered, there was a recorded message declaring that Australian Border Force had intercepted a package addressed to me and had, as a result, issued a warrant for my arrest.  I don’t have anything on order currently and, despite the impending threat to my liberty, my first reaction was to feel a flush of excitement and to wonder what the package was.  Which is probably not what they were aiming for. After the initial excitement at the prospect of getting mail, it then occurred to me that this could be a scam.

I feel I can be forthright here without fear of offending anyone – scammers are Olympic-grade idiots. What kind of moron tries to scam people during a pandemic?  Ignoring the fact it’s totally unconscionable, telling someone they’re at risk of being incarcerated and may lose the freedom to move about as they wish really lacks punch in the middle of a lockdown.  It sounds more like the status quo with a change of view. And, on the upside, you no longer have to worry about cooking and laundry.

Secondly, I doubt very much that law enforcement agencies are prone to announcing their intention to arrest by way of a voicemail message.  They’re far more likely to ‘DM’ you on Instagram.  It’s not my area of expertise, but I always assumed those kinds of agencies placed a significant premium on the element of surprise.  In my mind, they’re more likely to kick the gate in when you least expect it instead of calling to make an appointment. That said, I don’t have a front gate to speak of; more a driveway.  Maybe leaving a message is what you do when there’s no gate available to kick.

This brings me to my next point.  There’s no point trying to scam people if your central message is so terrifying that those receiving it hang up instantly and bury the phone in the backyard.  I, for one, am having real difficulties remembering precisely where I buried mine in an adrenaline-fueled frenzy.  I’d call myself to try and find it, save that I have made the fundamental strategic error of always keeping my phone on ‘silent’, meaning that I can only rely on it vibrating to have any idea where it is.  Worse still, I don’t have another phone to call it from, meaning I’d have to use a pay phone which is about eight hundred metres away.  I could call my mobile and race home, but there’s little chance that it’d still be shaking by the time I arrived.

Whilst I’m ninety nine percent certain that these messages are the work of scammers, I find myself unable to round up and put doubt entirely out of my mind.  What package are they referring to?  Has my on-line shopping history resulted in unwanted attention from the authorities?  The last thing I bought was a jar opener.  Or, to be more specific, I bought three jar openers.

I can see why this would provoke suspicion.  A jar opener is innocent enough, but what would anyone want with threejar openers?  Many’s the international crime cartel that has been founded on less.  Decades from now, when my intelligence file is finally declassified, I’ll discover all the top-level meetings that were prompted by my seemingly perverse decision to get three jar openers.  In truth, I thought I’d buy spares for members of my family.  But Amazon, who otherwise read your thoughts and go through your bins, isn’t interested in that level of detail.

But beyond my own checkered purchasing past, there’s the issue of the current package to consider. What could it contain that would result in a warrant for my arrest?  There’s little I need.  So I searched my thoughts and decided there was just one thing I longed for from overseas – sponge cake.  That’s because I have a serious sponge cake deficit in my life right now.

Once, sponge cake was the centre of my Universe.  It was, without doubt, the centerpiece of every major family event growing up. My grandmother and all her sisters were total sponge-masters; baking ninjas who took great pride in being able to produce a high-quality sponge for any occasion.  I’ve long aspired to be a sponge black belt in my own right, but am yet to do anything about it.  But it’s made me think that I no longer have those people to rely on.  Perhaps one of the overseas relatives intuited my needs and baked me a sponge, never dreaming it would be intercepted at sea and taken in for questioning.

I’ve noticed my father has, over the past few years, returned to sponge cake.  Like any family, we flirted with cheesecake, mud cake and everything in between, but more recently he’s been buying sponge from the supermarket in half-acre quantities.  Whilst big on volume, it’s simply not the same.

To Australian Border Force; if, indeed, you have issued a warrant for my arrest, I’ve already handcuffed myself to save you the trouble.  Mind you, I’ll admit I’m finding it difficult to unload the dishwasher, so if you could get a wriggle on, I’d appreciate it.  And for those who might be concerned for my welfare, feel free to send me something whilst I’m stuck in the Big House.  A sponge would do nicely. 

Postcards from the Fridge: How I Lost The Plot Before Finding It

This was the week.  The week I could no longer ignore the incontrovertible and mounting evidence that I had well and truly lost the plot.  There will be some who assert (somewhat unfairly) that I never had a tight grip on it to begin with, but the fact is that weeks of lockdown have finally loosened whatever grip I had and the plot has drifted off like a helium balloon.  Goodness knows where that thing will end up.

It happened on Sunday. I finished my run and wandered over to the local coffee shop, mask now firmly in place.  As I always do, I ordered a small skinny flat white with one.  I waited patiently as the barista weaved her particular magic until  my name was called and I stepped forward to collect my caffeinated prize.  It was then I made the mistake that I’d successfully avoided making the entire pandemic – I raised my take away coffee to my lips and attempted to drink it through the mask.

Skinny flat white immediately cascaded down my face and splashed across my chest.  Others turned their faces away in abject disgust as coffee began to land in big, dark drops on the footpath.  Even the barista looked horrified.  I did what any reasonable person would do under the circumstances – I continued trying to suck flat white through my mask.  For something thin enough to allow you to breathe, a mask is surprisingly resistant to liquid.  Soon, what had been droplets turned into a veritable waterfall as coffee tumbled down my front before splashing across the footpath.

I can’t have been the first. Surely others have experienced the ‘forgot I was wearing a mask and attempted to drink a coffee’ syndrome? There are many different types of mask.  I’ve stuck with orthodoxy and have been wearing surgical masks.  It makes me feel as though I fit in as well as suggesting I’m more qualified than I actually am.  However, a light blue surgical mask really highlights coffee stains around the mouth region.  Essentially, it ruins the mask forever.  It also makes you easy to spot – passersby are left in no doubt as to what’s happened.  

Possibly as a result of feeling humiliated, possibly because I was under-caffeinated,  I over-reacted by deciding to spend the day gardening. If, as I suspected, I had lost the plot; there was some chance I might find it buried somewhere in the back yard.  Those who consider gardening part of their routine probably can’t appreciate how bizarre it is for me to be in the garden.  Besides mowing, we’ve mostly left each other alone.  A respectful distance if you will.  But here was I, violating the very neutrality that had kept us all safe up to now.

I’ve not lived at this address for long.  To that extent, this particular garden is a mystery to me.  There are some raised garden beds completely overrun with grass and weeds, which seemed like a logical place to start.  Using the wonder-mattock I bought just before lockdown, I ripped up the garden beds and fished out as much of the grass as I could.  It was then that I started to discover more surprising artifacts.

In  an ideal world, this would be the part of the story where I told you about the gold doubloons, diamonds and other treasures I discovered. But if the past eighteen months has taught us anything, it’s that an ideal world doesn’t exist.  Instead, I found a menagerie of random household items.  A foam ball, a toy car, tinsel (leading me to speculate that previous occupants may have grown their own Christmas tree, decorating it ‘in situ’ rather than dragging it into the living room) and, somewhat alarmingly, bones.

The more I dug, the more bones I discovered.  There were moments when I thought I’d soon be calling in Forensics before it became obvious that these were animal bones.  In lockdown, you’re supposed to start new hobbies, and for an instant I considered trying to re-construct the skeleton into a museum display before deciding that skeletal modeling was not a skill I wanted to take into the post-pandemic world.

Then it struck me.  With all the force of a skinny flat white with one that you’ve inadvertently attempted to drink whilst still wearing a facemask.  These were, most likely, the remains of a cat.  In fact, these weren’t raised garden beds at all, but a shrine to a revered family feline that I had inadvertently managed to desecrate.  Other cats would be out for revenge.  I would have to go into hiding – which is hard to do when you’re already in lockdown.  I’m not sure how, precisely, but the cat-kingdom will exact its revenge.  I now live in fear that there’ll be a knock on the door and I’ll open it to find Mr. Mistoffelees standing on the porch before punching me in the nose and storming off.  

In the middle of the week, there was a knock.  Naturally, I was nervous.  But rather than finding an angry Mr. Mistoffelees bent on wreaking vengeance waiting for me, I found a box.  In that box I found food.  Coffee, milk, donuts, cheese and a pizza.  Sent by a family member for no reason at all other than to make me feel better.  I rummaged around the bottom of the box before pulling it out.  And there it was – the plot.  Just when I needed it most.  Thanks.#

Lockdown Five and a Half: Zeroing In

And so it is.  After coming through lockdown five, we find ourselves in lockdown six.  To be honest, I don’t think we can honestly say the curtain had fallen on lockdown five – if you can’t visit family, you’re still in lockdown, even if can get a flat white at a café.  Besides, using the ‘Police Academy Theory of Relativity’, this would put us in ‘City Under Siege’ territory that, although aptly named, holds a zero percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

It’s no easy thing to get a ‘zero’ on Rotten Tomatoes.  It’s a rating reserved for pieces of cinematic filth for which no one on the entire planet could find a kind word to say.  Movies for which there is no redeeming feature whatsoever. Where critics could not bring themselves to say as much as ‘at least the on set catering was good – half a star’. In that sense, ‘Police Academy Six: City Under Siege’ joins an elite but diverse group of movies, bound together only by their sheer putrescence.  

‘Jaws: The Revenge’ worked hard for its zero rating.  It followed the spectacularly poor ‘Jaws: 3-D’ which, as the title not so much implies as it does boldly declare, was a three dimensional experience with the notable exception of the script.  Let me say right now that I accept that I am partly to blame for the existence of ‘Jaw: The Revenge’ as I am one of the unfortunate few who went and saw ‘Jaws: 3-D’ at the cinema.  Forgive me.

Amazingly, the film features Michael Caine.  Not just someone called ‘Michael Caine’ but the actual, ‘what’s-it’s-all-about-Alfie?’ Michael Caine.  He claims never to have seen the film but has, he says, seen the house it built which he describes as ‘terrific’.  It was an opportunity squandered.  It would have been better had bits of previous Michael Caine films had been incorporated into ‘Jaws: The Revenge’.  Had it featured a scene where Michael Caine flees the shark whilst driving a Mini Cooper, a huge, stinking ‘zero’ could have been avoided. If the shark had been blown up, as in the original film, it would have given Michael Caine the chance to say, ‘You’re only supposed to blow the bl&@dy doors off!’  That’s the kind of genius cross-promotion the members of the Academy love.

Also in this elite list is ‘Look Who’s Talking Now!’, which was the third, highly unnecessary installment so totally devoid of merit that it can only have been dreamed up for tax purposes.  Once more, I must take my share of the blame, having borne witness to the preceding ‘Look Who’s Talking Too’ at the cinema. Also in the list is ‘The Ridiculous 6’; an Adam Sandler picture.  I haven’t seen it, but I will say that Adam Sandler is capable of great things and I’ve seen lots of his earlier work.

There’s a pattern here.  One in which I have given creative succor to those who, perhaps, didn’t deserve it.  If nothing else, it tells me that I should start making better choices. My choices in lockdown, however, have mostly been pretty good.  I guess, in the end, whether this is lockdown five or six probably doesn’t matter that much.  Regardless, the question I ask myself is this: will this be the lockdown where the wheels officially come off?  

For me, there’s been no ‘quarantini’ at the end of the day, nor have I morphed into a ‘before’ picture.  With so much chaos, I’ve over-compensated with structure and stopped drinking altogether.  I’ve also gotten (properly) dressed every day, without fail.  Wearing pajamas only to slip on a jumper for conference calls doesn’t appeal to me at all.  Not one bit.  

I’m running sixty kilometres a week.  Which, with a five-kilometre limit in place, means I’m spending a lot of time running in circles.  So much so that it’s beginning to effect the way I walk.  I am spinning around whenever I move.  Say what you will, but it’s off-putting to see someone pirouette into a room, even if you’re watching them from the safety of Microsoft Teams.  

As well as I’ve done to now, everyone has their limit.  Will this be the lockdown where I let loose?  Having kept it together through structure, maybe I should treat this lockdown differently and, for want of a better way of putting it, let it all hang out.  When you spot me at the supermarket, don’t be surprised if all you see in my trolley is ice cream and potato chips.  It’s been a long time coming.

Having now purchased thirty litres of ‘Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food’ and my own body weight in salt and vinegar, I have barricaded myself indoors where I intend to stay for the rest of the lockdown.  Taking up position on the couch, I have just turned on the television.  

Netflix, in an attempt to be helpful, has selected a range of movies for me to watch based on my viewing preferences.  For some reason, these are the only programs I can currently access.  Scrolling through, the following movies are in my Netflix list: Police Academy Six: City Under Siege, Jaws: The Revenge, The Ridiculous 6 and Look Who’s Talking Now.  It’s official: the chances of me enjoying this latest lockdown are best described as follows – zero.   

Notes from the Bunker: Living La Vida Lockdown

There ought to be a term for it.  For lack of an alternative, I’m going with ‘Pfizerized’.  As of last week, that’s what I am.  Not only did getting vaccinated give me some peace of mind, it also provided me with a legitimate reason for traveling further than five kilometres.  I was so excited to be going anywhere that I hung my head out the window, kelpie-style, to enjoy to full sensory experience of motion.  For I am not enjoying lockdown.  Not at all.

On Monday, I started to look forward to bin night.  Which is on Wednesday.  As a general rule, I consider bin night a chore; something that must not be forgotten rather than something for which I am breathlessly counting down the hours. After a week of lockdown, the idea of having a legitimate reason to walk down to the end of the driveway and back again was a giddy thrill I hoped would sustain me.

Tuesday, in a word, was a surprise.  As I made my morning commute – which now consists for walking from the kitchen to the study whilst trying not to spill my coffee – I felt I was being watching.  As my head snapped upwards and I duly spilled my white with one all over the floorboards, I noticed a fox standing at my backdoor, staring in.  For a moment, each of us looked at the other, unsure of what to do.

There are foxes around the neighborhood, but this is the first time I’ve been stalked by one.  Clearly, lockdown has emboldened the animal kingdom more generally.  Sensing weakness, some of them have decided that now is the time to assert themselves and launch their take over.  The fox seemed nonplussed and sauntered around the backyard before disappearing behind the shed.  Possibly to get more foxes by way of reinforcement.

Finally, the big day arrived. To make the most of it, I put on my dinner suit and casually strutted down the driveway with both the regular bin and recycling bin.  I live in an area where the local council gives you a regular sized recycling bin, but a smaller regular bin that is somewhere between an adult sized wheelie bin and a Coles mini-collectible.  It fits enough garbage; it’s just that to wheel it around, you’d ideally be no taller than four feet.  Mind you, I’ve never met anyone from my local council who, for all I know, may all be Oompa Loompas.

Despite the awkwardness of carrying my regular bin whilst rolling the recycling bin down the driveway, I found that my neighbors had put their bins out already.  Meaning that I had completely squandered my only chance for meaningful human contact for the entire week.  I resolved to message my neighbors and synchronize our watches so that, in future, we could make the most of one of the few sanctioned reasons for being outside.

Thursday was the big one. That’s the day I’d allowed for take away food.  Forget Uber Eats. I wanted the full experience of walking somewhere to pick up a meal.  Masking up, I put a bag under my arm and began purposefully striding towards the main street; passing as I did, my empty bins which I hadn’t taken in because I was saving that for a special occasion.  I was on a mission.

I’m a big believer in the whole ‘QR Code’ thing.  So much so, that I’ve installed them at the entry points to every room in my house, despite the fact that I live alone.  Even an early morning trip to visit the water closet isn’t complete if I don’t scan in.  You can’t be too careful.  As I continued walking to the main drag, I clutched the phone in my pocket, ready to whip it out and do my duty.  As I approached the entrance, I pulled out my phone to find a message that said it was ‘disabled’ except if it was an emergency.

This was unexpected.  A phone is currently the passport to pretty much everything and I had no idea which buttons I’d inadvertently pushed to achieve this result.  It was unclear how long this telephonic paralysis was going to last.  I was also unsure whether picking up a kebab would constitute an emergency as such, although I was kind of peckish. 

Luckily, the phone unlocked itself and I was able to scan in and get dinner.  Although, that said, there was a brief moment of awkwardness when I’m sure the person serving me said it would be ‘forty dollars’ which, unless you’re at an airport (and, let’s face it, none of us are), is quite a lot for a kebab. It then became apparent that between the mask and Perspex screen, I’d simply misheard him.

As of Friday, the fox is yet to return.  It’s another five days until bin night and there’s not a whole lot to look forward to.  I’ve taken to wearing my dinner suit all day, every day.  I can’t be sure, but I think it’s making other people in Zoom meetings feel uncomfortable.  For now, though, I’m taking some assurance in being fully vaccinated and in knowing that others are keen to get theirs also. It will all be over soon. Or, at least, I hope so.  We need to get out of this thing before the foxes get a chance to mobilize and take over once and for all.

Lockdown Five: The Assignment Miami Beach Parallel

Lockdown number five.  As sequels go, we’re definitely heading towards the shallow end of the pool. Nothing good ever came of installment number five.  Looking at this purely from a ‘Police Academy’ point of view, that puts us in ‘Assignment Miami Beach’ territory.  I could bore you with plot details, if there were any, but it’s enough to say that this particular sequel didn’t even include Steve Guttenberg; whose absence rendered it something worse than pointless.  

There’s a law of diminishing returns.  It’s a law even more powerful than the one that requires you to wear a mask whilst at the supermarket so your glasses are continually fogging up as you attempt to read your shopping list.  I, however, am determined to make this lockdown count.  Forget learning a new language or acquiring a new skill. I refuse to squander this lockdown by adopting an on-line fitness program – a pointless exercise that involved actual pointless exercise.  No way.  This time, I’m surrendering to binge watching.

When I was a kid, ‘binge watching’ referred to what you ate when watching television rather than the act of watching television itself.  Eating Milo straight from the tin whilst watching ‘The Fall Guy’ was as close as I ever came.  But in this era of content on demand, ‘binge watching’ means something else entirely, even if it is still best done with a tin of Milo and a spoon to hand. I’ve got my work cut out for me.

I’m not sure how, but I’d never seen ‘The Sopranos’.  It’s meant to be one of the greatest shows of all time and whilst as someone who used to regularly watch ‘It’s A Knockout’ I treat such claims with skepticism, it’s time I filled that particular pop culture knowledge gap. But I plan to mix things up. Rather than solely indulging in something new, I plan to engage in nostalgia also.  Which is why I’ve dusted off my DVD collection of ‘A Country Practice’; all fourteen seasons spanning some two hundred and two separate discs.  That ought to fill a five-day lockdown nicely.

‘What?!’ I hear you cry. ‘You’re not using lockdown for a Police Academy marathon?’  Put simply, no I’m not.  That’s because I saw ‘Police Academy Five: Assignment Miami Beach’ at the cinema.  Every smutty joke, ribald innuendo and moment of acting so hammy that if you slapped two pieces of bread around it, you could call it a sandwich, was projected onto a forty-foot screen.  That was nearly thirty-five years ago and all I can say is that I’m yet to fully recover.

Lining up a bunch of DVDs to watch feels like I’m stepping back in time.  Nowadays the idea of getting up to change one disc for another seems like an incredible burden.  But for all the convenience that streaming offers, you never get buffering when you’re watching something on DVD.  There’s something to be said for that kind of reliability. Specifically, ‘phew’.

A couple of days into lockdown and I’m finding ‘The Sopranos’ kind of tense.  To balance that out, I’m swapping between Tony and the gang and the lovable characters from Wandin Valley.  Esme Watson is the ying to Paulie ‘Walnuts’ Gualtieri’s yang. I don’t want to put it too highly, but watching two entirely different series simultaneously feels like it may be an act of genius.

I need to disclose something at this point – I’m terrible at watching television.  Don’t get me wrong; I like movies and TV shows. It’s just that I struggle to stay awake.  For me, watching a film involves me viewing (and enjoying) the first forty-five minutes before waking up as the credits roll.  Invariably, various plot points have developed whilst I’ve had my eyes closed and I’m confused.  After all, it’s not as though I’m re-watching ‘Police Academy Five: Assignment Miami Beach’ for which being unconscious is probably highly desirable, with the added bonus that you won’t miss important plot developments because there aren’t any.

 I’ve been enjoying both ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘A Country Practice’. However, as is my way, I’ve nodded off a few times mid-episode.  At times I’ve been kind of befuddled.  So much so, that I’ve started to blur the lines somewhat and treat them not as two separate shows but a single series.  Dr Terrence Elliott sitting down with Big Puss at the Bada Bing.  The bit where Fatso the Wombat is promoted to ‘captain’ before becoming a rat (being a furry quadruped probably made the transition an easy one.)  And I’m still reeling from the episode where Bob and Cookie get clipped for heisting a truck full of plumbers’ overalls on the outskirts of Wandin Valley.  

However long this lockdown lasts, at least I’ll have made the most of it.  As overwhelming as being separated from friends and family is, I’m mindful it’s all for a bigger purpose.  Besides, things could be worse – you could be stuck inside watching Police Academy Five on a continuous loop.  Soon enough, we’ll be able to celebrate.  Or as Tony Soprano once so memorably said to Sergeant Frank Gilroy as they enjoyed a counter meal down at the Wandin Valley public bar; ‘It’s almost time for turkey sandwiches!’  So true.

When Terrence Met Grandpa: The Ultimate Puppet Slap Down

 History is filled with them.  Meetings between two disparate people; brought about by fate or design, all for the greater good of humanity.  The premise seems simple: awesome plus awesome will inevitably equal even more awesome than was previously thought possible.  Scientists refer to this as Einstein’s Theory of Relative Awesomeness. The examples are obvious.  

Dolly and Kenny were so wonderful when brought together that all either needed was a mononym; surnames being surplus to requirements. Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer were, ironically enough, best known by their surnames.  Maybe that’s the difference between music and chess. Godzilla and King Kong – need I say more?  All of them perfectly terrific in their own right, but driven to even greater heights of brilliance when brought together.  Sparks will fly.  Rainbows will appear.  All is well in the world.  I suppose this is what I had in mind when I introduced Grandpa to Terrence.

Terrence is a puppet.  That’s not an insult; just a statement of fact.  Terrence is a puppet made by my nine year old nephew, TJ.  Put simply, Terrence is a thing of splendour; furry, blue and perfectly formed.  He is magnificent.  He does, however, have something of an attitude and can, at times, get a little lippy.  Which is quite an achievement when you consider that he doesn’t have any actual lips to speak of or, for that matter, with.

Lately, Terrence has been appearing at family functions. These are now keenly anticipated. Terrence’s shtick is to invite questions from the audience which, when you’re surrounded by members of your family is brave beyond belief.  (It may only work if you’re holding a puppet – I don’t plan to find out.) Both the questions and the answers are entirely improvised.  It’s genuinely thrilling.  It should come as no surprise that TJ handles things wonderfully well. He is, after all, a second generation puppeteer.

As charmed as Terrence’s life has been, Grandpa’s has been cursed.  Instead of being coaxed into life with care, precision and an eye for detail, his creation was marred completely by my cack-handed, miserable attempts to sew.  It’s difficult to put into words just how shoddy my workmanship was.  Which is why this article also comes with a picture.  And just as it can be said that a picture says a thousand words; in this case, each of those words features ‘house’ as the second syllable. 

I’m not sure why my efforts were as desultory as they were.  For those too busy to absorb the full horror of the photo, try imagining what the Mona Lisa might look like if Leonardo da Vinci had been blindfolded, spun around a dozen times before being handed a brush and told to get painting.  The results would be vastly different to those currently on display at The Louvre.  I’m not saying I was blindfolded, nor am I comparing myself to da Vinci. Rather, much like Leonardo himself, I’m just trying to paint a picture.

Unlike Terrence’s energetic performances, Grandpa’s appearances were marred by severe lethargy, fueled by my apparent inability to hold my arm above my head for more than a couple of minutes at a time.  They were never going to meet as equals. But despite the obvious problems, my father returned my puppet to me after thirty years for the purpose of me gifting it to my nephew.

Bringing two people – even if they’re generally great – doesn’t always work out.  Consider the duet ‘When Something Is Wrong With My Baby’ by John Farnham and Jimmy Barnes where two brilliant singers take a Sam and Dave classic and commit an act of musical butchery so heinous that, to this day, the opening bar causes vegans to shudder.  So it was when Terrence met Grandpa.

As I pulled what remained of my puppet from the coffin-like box my father had placed him in, my nephew appeared more alarmed than impressed.  My brother insisted that we take a photo of the two puppets together.  We sat on the couch and I slipped my hand into the puppet to hold it upright.  As I reached for the mouth, I could feel that the foam had disintegrated into a fine powder and it began running down my arm.  As I described how unpleasant a sensation this was, my brother comforted me by suggesting it was probably the result of spiders nesting in the head. It was agreed that I would hold the puppet by the back of the neck.

After the photo was taken, my father turned to my nephew and asked whether he wanted to keep my ‘Grandpa’ puppet.  My nephew, with a slight look of fear on his face, gently shook his head.  I returned Grandpa to his box and the box to the boot of my father’s car when his back was turned.  Looking at the picture, I can see that my nephew is unsure of what to make of this monstrosity.  I wonder if the whole unfortunate episode will get a mention next time Terrence entertains the family.  Perhaps not.  It’s for the best.

On Existentialism and Eastlink

It’s a weird time. For whatever reason, my nerves are heightened, senses sharpened.  I don’t know if it’s that we’re now in the second year of the pandemic or some kind of mid-life crisis, but I’m starting to see things a little differently.  It began, somewhat unexpectedly, on Eastlink.  Generally speaking, I’m not one for experiencing a philosophical flashpoint whilst charging down a major commuter expressway, but it wasn’t something I chose.  Rather, it seemed to choose me.

I was driving to my brother’s when I saw it: a large flashing sign hanging above the road.  In no uncertain terms, it explained that the right lane was strictly for overtaking and that, if not overtaking, you should remain in the left lane. The message was put clearly and with great economy.  Namely, venture into the right hand lane only if you plan to overtake. Otherwise, remain in the left lane.  At this particular point of Eastlink, there are three lanes.  Whilst the purpose of lanes one and three had been made crystal clear, the circumstances under which you were permitted to utilize lane number two were a mystery.

 That’s not to say that lane two was empty. Far from it.  There were all kinds of vehicles traversing the no-purpose lane, unaware of their status as visitors to a world without status or recognition. They were, in effect, cruising along in an existential no-man’s land, oblivious to the consequences. From the safety of the left lane, I wanted to sound my horn as a warning, but it was no use.  These people were using the supernatural mystery lane and nothing would change their minds.

 Given this absence of clarity, there ought to be warning.  Perhaps a road sign that reads ‘Warning: Existential Crisis Ahead’.  Usually such signs are accompanied by a stick figure of some sort to ram the point home.  I feel that those responsible for creating these stick figures often fail to get the level of recognition they so richly deserve.  Within the genre of ‘road sign stick figures’ I’m quite fond of ‘beware of falling rocks’.  I’m not sure how best to signify a spiritual flashpoint of this kind – perhaps a stick figure modeled on Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ would do the trick.

 It’s not the only challenge to the time, space and the cosmos that’s been troubling me this week.  In between avoiding paranormal lane-changes, I’ve also been thinking about the bin in the kitchen a lot.  Maybe too much.  When I empty the bin, it remains empty for a day at most.  Ninety percent of the time it appears full, even as further rubbish is added.  This shouldn’t be possible.  If the rate of input remains pretty much consistent, then this should simply not be so.  Obviously, some of this waste is being transported to another dimension – possibly the second lane of Eastlink – where it bides its time, waiting for bin night.

Keen for answers, I decided to try and Google my way out of my conundrum.  In short order, I found myself on YouTube watching cat videos; when it occurred to me that people stopped referring to the internet as ‘the information superhighway’ probably about the same time as cat videos took over. Or, alternatively, the information superhighway has three lanes and they couldn’t figure out what the second lane was for and abandoned the idea altogether. 

But YouTube is a strange, mysterious place that is yet to be touched by the rules of western civilization.  It was whilst I was there that I discovered ‘reaction’ videos.  A reaction video is where someone films themselves listening to or watching something for the first time.  We, the viewer, then get to watch them react.  As best  I can tell, no formal qualification is necessary.  Note; to date no-one has created a video of themselves reacting to a book they’re reading for the first time – presumably nobody’s interested in watching a reaction to ‘A Remembrance of Things Past’ by Marcel Proust.   Or it’s not considered an efficient use of time.  Not only do people make these videos; people generate income by making these videos.  

You can guess what happens next.  These overseas video correspondents are bombarded with requests to react to things that – whilst incredibly popular here – are unknown in other countries.  So it is that people end up reacting to Cold Chisel and John Farnham songs. Some presenters were clearly taken aback by the work of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.  The video of some dude in Florida reacting to ‘This Is Serious Mum’ is not one I’ll soon forget.

Forget ever understanding how Eastlink works. Instead, I need to start filming reaction videos.  And since it pays to specialize, my plan is to film myself reacting to other people’s reaction videos.  Or, better yet, film myself reacting to footage of people driving in the second lane of Eastlink.  To ensure that it goes viral, I’ll superimpose some footage of a kitten. With those crucial ingredients in place, success is all but guaranteed.  Or maybe I should forget it completely and take these ill-conceived ideas and throw them in the bin that, although it appears full, won’t need emptying for another three or four days.  It might be just me, but I suspect the last few weeks of social isolation have taken their toll(way).  I’ll wait it out in the second lane.