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.

The Reverse Oscar Wilde Puppet Vortex

It started with my nephew.  Without warning, he started making puppets.  I’m not talking about a sock with a couple of buttons sewn on, but beautiful puppets that would make Jim Henson weep with envy.  One is named ‘Terrence’ and he performed a puppet show that included fielding questions from the audience.  It was quite brilliant. Within moments, I was flooded with nostalgia and my right arm went bolt upright as a matter of instinct.  That’s because I know a thing or two about puppet shows – for I was a teenage puppeteer.

I couldn’t tell you how it happened.  I had no instinct whatsoever for needlecraft, design or costuming and none of the skills normally associated with puppetry.  I didn’t even own a black skivvy and was way too young to cultivate an effective goatee.  If you were designing a puppeteer from scratch, I would be more of a cautionary tale rather than a blueprint.  But despite my shortcomings being both bountiful and profound, I built my own puppet.

He was made of foam with blue material stretched across the frame; the end result was something that resembled a disaffected Smurf.  The stitching was uneven meaning that the foam was pulled in various directions resulting in a head that would likely frighten small children.  It’s fair to say that making a puppet that terrifies children means you’re alienating pretty much your entire potential audience.  Having  not worked out my design in advance, I was now forced to make the best I could out of the twisted puppetry wreckage in front of me.  I glued on some white carpet around the head, made some glasses out of wire and called him ‘Grandpa’.

Despite his hideous appearance that terrified old and young alike, ‘Grandpa’ was quite the hit.  Our youth group would perform puppet shows which, in reality, meant kneeling on the floor with your arm above your head for extended periods of time until you thought it was about to fall off at the elbow.  It was common that, mid show, due to severe arm-fatigue, Grandpa would start to become quite limp until he was pretty much hanging on the curtain, not moving very much, prompting the other more spritely puppets to question whether Grandpa had experienced some kind of medical episode.  In reality, I think they were just jealous.

At some point during my teenage years, I made the obvious transition from puppetry to rock and roll, and left Grandpa behind.  For those who might suggest that music and puppetry are not necessarily mutually exclusive – as One Direction so ably demonstrated – I can only say that I tried once to strum a Maton guitar whilst holding Grandpa and the results were not so much musical as they were flat-out disastrous.  I put Grandpa aside and for the past thirty years he’s been gathering dust.  Until now.

My father is strongly of the view that I should present my puppet to my nephew.  I’m reluctant; the simple fact is that my nine year old nephew is making  puppets that are greatly superior to anything I managed conjure up as a teenager.  I shouldn’t care, but the truth is that I’m not ready to receive constructive criticism on my needlecraft from a nine year old.  But my father was determined, and shoved a box containing the mortal remains of Grandpa in my direction.

Time has not been kind to my puppet.  I would have thought there was no greater depth for Grandpa to plumb, but I now stood corrected as I gazed upon what was left of my puppet.  Then it struck me – when I constructed ‘Grandpa’, my father was the age I am now.  In the intervening years, my father has gradually become more and more like the puppet.  Just as Dorian Gray had a portrait ageing in an attic; here, my father was catching up to Grandpa. It was kind of a reverse Oscar Wilde effect.  Then it occurred to me – perhaps that was the reason he’d kept it all these years.  That, somehow, my father and the puppet were inextricably linked.

No matter what I did, it felt like the eyes of the puppet were following me as I moved around the house. In quiet moments alone, I think that  I’ve heard the voice of my father before I spin around to see the puppet lying on the dining room table, it’s dead eyes staring at me.  Eventually, I surrendered and put the puppet on my hand.  It was amazing how natural it felt.  But then it started to speak; telling me that it had a bundle of newspaper clippings and a carton of eggs in the car and that I should make sure I took time to collect them.  It’s my father that’s speaking.  In a sharp turn for the worse, I think I may have started speaking back…

I’m not sure when I’ll be handing over ‘Grandpa’ to my nephew.  What his puppet, ‘Terrence’, will make of Grandpa is anyone’s guess, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Grandpa was about to find himself on the wrong end of a fairly nasty hazing ritual.  He may deserve it.

And so it is that the term ‘Master of the Puppets’ is not only the name of a Metallica album but a title passed on from one generation of my family to the next.  For me, I’m happy to hand both the title and the puppet over to my nephew.  My arm, however, is now stuck permanently above my head.  This could be awkward.

From Pandemic To Pan-Pipes: Haven’t We Suffered Enough?

I didn’t need to be asked twice.  As soon as it was announced that I was eligible to receive a vaccination, I was on to the hotline to make a booking.  As was every other member of Generation X, it seemed, resulting in a complete annihilation of the phone system.  Often, people complain about how long they were on hold – for the first three days of trying, I couldn’t get to ‘hold’.  Instead, I was unceremoniously dumped, with the encouragement to try again at a later time.  Then, on day three, everything changed. 

On day three, I made it to ‘hold’.  Which, I feel, is the telephonic equivalent to reaching the base camp of Mount Everest. There’s still plenty of climbing to be done, but at least you’re somewhere.  Having overcome the seemingly impossible hurdle of ‘getting to hold’, I now had to face the next challenge to my sanity – hold music.

What better way to soothe the jangled nerves of a frazzled public than with hold music?  And, given most of  the callers were Gen-Xers who came of age in the grunge era, what better way to relax them than with pan pipes? On a loop that plays over and over again, possibly for hours.  

This was thoughtless.  The least they could have done was to supply pan-pipe versions of classic grunge era songs.  Had the pan-pipes been performing a version of ‘Rooster’ by Alice in Chains, it would have been okay.  Instead, it was all weirdly mystical and filled me with an overwhelming urge to climb Hanging Rock.  Apparently, the ‘pan’ in ‘pandemic’ is actually short for ‘pan-pipe’. Who knew?

After forty minutes, I was sucked out of the third circle of hold without warning and delivered to an operator whom immediately asked me for my name.  Still reeling from the after-effects of forty minutes of pan-pipe music, I instinctively answered ‘Miranda’ before correcting myself.   After a minute or so of niceties, the operator asked me where I wanted to be vaccinated.  In a panic, I answered, ‘the arm, if possible’. All the images on TV had been of dignitaries presenting their biceps for vaccination, but maybe this was just for show and that, in actual fact, the needle went somewhere far less photogenic.  This put ‘vaccine hesitancy’ in a whole new light.

Turns out the ‘where’ was geographic rather than anatomical.  I had a choice of Prahran, Springvale or Cranbourne.  I was booked to appear at the Cranbourne Golf Course. I was surprised by the venue. I was also a little concerned – I hadn’t played golf in over twenty years always had an awful short game. I instantly imagined arriving only to be informed that there were only a few remaining doses left, the recipients of which would be determined by way of a playoff.  I wouldn’t stand a chance.  I confirmed the venue, but forgot to ask which hole.

I now had about eight days on which to work on my putting.  However, having been informed that  I would need to go to the golf course, I began to have doubts as to whether this was, in fact, correct.  My sister had been vaccinated in Cranbourne, but had gone to the local Turf Club, rather than the Golf Club.  Golf and racing are completely different sports; there really ought not be any confusion.

To be sure, I rang the hotline again.  This time, I sat on hold listening to what I was certain was a pan-pipe rendition of ‘Spoonman’ originally performed by Soundgarden, courtesy of the Pakenham Pan-Pipe Ensemble.  As the pan-pipes weaved their particular magic, I was suddenly wrenched from ‘on hold’ and delivered, shaken and a little disoriented, to a waiting operator.  I was told that the call may be monitored for coaching and quality purposes.  It seemed ironic that people who use pan-pipes for hold music should be concerned with quality.  

I quickly confirmed that I had a booking and that I’d been given the wrong venue in the first instance.  Throwing my five iron to the floor in disappointment, I was informed that I should, indeed, be heading to the Turf Club.  I decided to dress like a jockey in order to blend in. I’ve never really been to a turf club before, and I’d hate to stick out.  Granted, it’s rare for a jockey to be over six feet tall, but you’ve got to make an effort.

Arriving at the car park, there were dozens and dozens of people my age locking their cars, donning their masks and heading for the entrance.  Those without a mask were drinking coffee.  It says a lot about Melbourne’s love affair with coffee that drinking a flat white is a recognised exception to a public health order. 

As I approached the entrance, it occurred to me that this was the pandemic’s version of the Big Day Out.  Doubtless, the Pakenham Pan-Pipe Ensemble would be headlining the Main Stage, tearing the roof of with their version of ‘Enter Sandman’.  The whole thing ran like clockwork. I’d say it was like a well-oiled machine, but I’m yet to encounter a piece of machinery as awesome as the vaccination centre at Cranbourne.  The staff were, frankly, impeccable. I’m supposed to rest but, for some reason, I feel an uncontrollable urge to listen to pan-pipes.  Getting vaccinated felt like a tangible step out of the pandemic.  I can’t wait for the next one. 

A Total Lack of Selfie Awareness

Once upon a time, people rarely photographed themselves.  If they did, it was a complicated process that required buttons and timers and the kind of coordination and planning ordinarily reserved for launches of a space shuttle.  But what was once an oddity is now ubiquitous.  People photograph themselves all the time, perhaps more than anything else.  But for those of us who grew up pointing a camera at objects other than ourselves, this is a challenge.

I get it.  Being able to take your own photo rather than pester bystanders is clearly part of human evolution.  This kind of ‘selfie-sufficiency’ is to be applauded if not celebrated.  But there’s a generation now who are probably under the impression that allphotos are self-taken as opposed to taken by experts.

When I was growing up, a ‘selfie’ was something you painted on a canvas and took about eight months. For those of us devoid of any artistic abilities whatsoever, this was a fruitless waste of time. Invariably, the results were little more than a gigantic smudge.  Mind you, this smudge did look a lot like my passport photo, but I prefer to think that my efforts were unrepresentative rather than the more depressing possibility that they are eerily accurate.

These days, they teach you how to take a selfie before you hit high school.  Right after Phys Ed.  Young people are total black belts in selfie-taking.  Having completed my education in the pre-selfie era, my lack training is fully evident.  Not that I haven’t noticed that there are several skills you need to master the art of the selfie.  One is sucking in your cheeks (easy enough).  The one is the arm thrust where you stick your arm out so the camera is just the right distance from your face.  

The random arm extension can be either harmless or have near fatal consequences, as I was to discover when one person enthusiastically extended her arm whilst she was seated and I was standing in near proximity aboard a shuttle bus at an airport.  Had I been able to speak after the resulting impact, I surely would have asked what value there was in taking a selfie whilst in a crowded shuttle bus. 

Cocking your head to the side to achieve the most flattering angle is also a big one.  Nobody looks straight on.  Nobody.  Nothing will sooner reveal your selfie ineptitude that having your head on an even keel. To improve my results, I’ve tried cocking my head to the side to find a more flattering angle but I’m not sure any such angle exists.  After several attempts, the angle I was using had become so extreme that all that was left was the curve of my neck and part of an ear.  By the end, I was almost horizontal.  

Once, photos were taken either by your parents or trained professionals.  They lurked at shopping centres and we lived in constant fear that one of our parental overlords would decide that an impromptu portrait might be a good idea. Against a light blue background, you would be required to stare off to the side, hand elegantly placed on the shoulder of a sibling.  Were it not for lockdown, I’d be heading down to the nearest shopping centre to get one of these.  I refuse to accept that a ‘selfie’ can’t be outsourced.

Having to take a selfie has busted a number of myths for me.  Previously, I thought that the reason my eyes were always closed in photographs was because the photographer and I were never in synch.  Selfies have taught me that this is not the case. Even having eliminated the photographer from the equation, I still manage to produce photos with my eyes closed, albeit on a more flattering angle.  It’s as though pushing the button to take the picture and closing my eyes are two actions that are inextricably linked.

The results were awful. Despite the fact that these were photos, they bore an uncanny resemblance to a Picasso painting. Things were not, anatomically speaking, where they should have been.  I contemplated using an old trick favoured by ageing movie stars and rubbing some Vaseline on the lens, before deciding the five hundred gram jar I had was unlikely to be up to the job.  

Then I got desperate.  I decided that I might get a better result if the snap was more candid and unexpected.  I can only say that it’s very difficult to catch yourself off guard when taking a selfie.  I’d walk into rooms only to be startled by the sight of my own arm leaping out of nowhere before an explosion of light.  The results landed somewhere between alarmed and the kind of photo you might see of a celebrity immediately as they’re released from prison.

At a certain point, you’ve got to concede.  From the thirteen thousand or so attempts, I selected two that appeared almost semi-human and not very Picasso-like at all.  They are, of course, set against a blue screen that I improvised using a bed sheet and I’m staring off the side in the middle distance, one hand hovering over an invisible shoulder.  Sometimes you’ve got to stick with what you know.  You can agree or disagree with this approach.  But at least you get the picture.

The Lowdown on the Lockdown Hearted: Your Handy Guide

To borrow the words of William Shakespeare: ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends’.  These words were attributed Henry the Fifth, who was attempting to inspire his soldiers prior to them storming Harfleur to get the last available rolls of toilet paper and beef mince.  Or, to put it as Yogi Berra once so memorably did, ‘It’s de ja vu all over again’.  Here we are, once more, in lockdown.  It’s a little deflating, I know, but temporary.  By now, though, we’re all kind of experts.

Traditions have developed. Firstly, everyone sees the announcement coming a mile off.  Despite this, nothing seems to prevent the customary panic buying the instant it becomes official.  It seems that people drop whatever they’re doing the moment the news breaks before throwing the green bags in the back seat and hightailing it down to Coles, Woolies and Dan Murphys.  Possibly not in that order.  It’s as though we demand the right to lose our minds before lockdown kicks off.

To be honest, I’m not sure who these people are.  Surely they can’t be the same people who stuffed their trolleys with every spare bit of two-ply they could get their hands on in the first lockdown? They must still have mountains of the stuff from last time.  Perhaps those who kept their nerve in previous lockdowns have decided to get the full pandemic experience and discover what it’s like to fight someone for a packet pasta swirls and half a kilo of mince meat.

The second part of the routine is that we have to dig out our masks again.  For me, I like to pick a different theme for my masks each time we have a lockdown.  Last time, I went with ‘the Ned Kelly’. Whilst fully Covid-compliant, I’ll admit now that it was a little uncomfortable, both for me and for everyone who saw me wearing it.  Something about seeing someone walking down the street with a metal bucket on their head makes other people nervous.  Apparently.  In addition to chaffing, it also drastically reduced my field of vision. Trying to buy fruit with a Ned Kelly helmet on is an absolute nightmare; believe me.

This time, I’m steering clear of bushrangers altogether.  Instead, for this lockdown I’ve decided to make a mask that I like to refer to as ‘the Tuckerbag’.  Based on the world’s most manifestly inadequate puppet and spokesperson for the supermarket chain ‘Tuckerbag’, my mask will both be a nostalgic celebration and a reminder that, once upon a time, shopping bags were made of truly recyclable paper rather than some kind of heavy duty plastic that probably has a half life that would rival plutonium.  

There’s a slight problem with the eyes.  I’m pretty sure the original ‘Tucker’ had eyes that were stuck on.  Stuck on eyes are no good for navigating the fruit and vegie section of the supermarket.  It’s bound to lead to trouble.  Worse still, in the event that I am actually able to find the supermarket whilst wearing ‘the Tuckerbag’ mask, there’s a very good chance I won’t be able to find my way back out again.  

The third part of the lockdown routine is the regular evaluation of exposure sites.  This serves two purposes: to see how close the nearest exposure site is to where you live and, secondly, to look with awe and quiet admiration at the busy social lives of others.  I do want to say that those who supply these details are performing an immeasurable public service.  But when I look at the list, I am struck by the fact that I really don’t get out enough. 

If I’m being honest, it’s hard not to be a tiny bit, well, judgmental.  In previous outbreaks, who amongst us didn’t read the list of exposure sites and see both ‘Dan Murphys’ and ‘Off Ya Tree’ and lift and knowing eyebrow?  Or wonder at the kind of person who visits multiple K-Marts in a day instead of using the internet like the rest of us do?  Yesterday, I saw that a shopping centre comfort station was listed as an exposure site for a ten-hour period.  My thoughts immediately went to the person concerned, hoping that there were multiple trips involved as opposed to a single, catastrophic visit.

My own lockdown traditions tend towards the idiosyncratic.  I have taken to getting changed after work just so that it feels different. In old movies, they’d often talk about getting ‘changed for dinner’.  It sounds kind of civilized.  Last Tuesday, I ditched a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt to put on a tuxedo before mealtime.  It was rissoles.  In retrospect, I may have overdone it.  I choose to look at the positives.

I am now a certified black belt in ‘Microsoft Teams’.  I also feel I know what to do when a lockdown is announced.  I’m disappointed – but who isn’t?  Nobody wants to be here and everybody wants things to get back to something like normal.  Which they will. But I marvel at the ability of people to adapt, to look out for each other and to do what needs to be done. If the horror-show that is the last twelve months has taught us something, it’s that we can do anything when push comes to pandemic shove.  Soon, lockdown will be a thing of the past and I can finally burn my Tuckerbag mask.  The day can’t come soon enough.

A Hardware’s Day’s Night

In the past fortnight, I’ve been to the local hardware store four times.  As someone for whom such a trip is, at best, an annual excursion, this is quite the turn of events. But despite the vastly increased frequency of my visits, I remain none the wiser.  The whole experience is as mystical and as unfathomably mysterious as ever.  I appreciate that terms like ‘mystical’ and ‘mysterious’ are seldom used in reference to a store that sells lug-nuts but there is a simple reason for this: I am not a handy man.

By ‘handy man’, I don’t mean someone with a Mario-style tool belt who’s available to perform odd jobs around the house or, alternatively, leap over barrels maliciously hurled across a building site by a gigantic monkey.  Not at all.  Rather, I mean I missed out on whatever genetic makeup is necessary to be able to distinguish between a left-handed hammer and a right-handed hammer.  If I’m being honest, they all look the same to me.

For me, going to a hardware store is like going to another country; one where everyone else speaks a language I don’t.  I live in fear that, at any moment, someone will say something to me I won’t comprehend and I’ll be left to simply shrug my shoulders, grunt in reply and point. At best, I feel like an imposter even for being there, which is why I tried to dress the part for my first visit and purchased a checkered shirt, gumboots and chewing tobacco in the hope that I’d fit in seamlessly.  I also bought a pair of denim overalls to add, so I hoped, to the overall effect.  (Incidentally, I may well start a band called ‘The Overall Effect’ where all the members wear denim overalls.  I might even write a song called ‘Overall’ to the tune of ‘Wonderwall’.  I’ll keep you posted.)   

Turns out, people who frequent hardware stores do not chew tobacco.  Instead of making me fit in, it made me stick out like a sore thumb that, presumably, had found itself on the business end of a left-handed hammer.  Spurting tobacco juice through the gaps in your front teeth like some kind of hillbilly whale is frowned upon if not outright prohibited by the proprietors.  Indeed, it was after one such nicotine-laden liquid expulsion that I was encouraged to buy a mop.

Before making my second trip, I decided to do a little research.  By looking at websites, I discovered that people who visit hardware stores are, without exception, delighted to be there, as nothing else could account for the wall-to-wall smiles on the faces of those present.  Also, I learned that when members of the generally public interact with staff members, one of them is always holding something whilst the other is always pointing.  But as I continued my research into the products themselves, I was left more confused than ever.

Even objects that I consider to be relatively basic come in a near-infinite number of varieties.  Much as in nature, you can refer to a ‘bird’ or, if you prefer to be super-precise, a ‘Slender-billed Flufftail Gruiforme’, so it goes with almost everything at a hardware store.  I’ve no idea what a ‘Fernuggin Nut’ is, much less the heightened circumstances that might necessitate it being pressed into service.  How a ‘Shaka-shaka Wing Wang Doodle Cordless Drill Bit’ is used is, I feel, best left unanswered.  The less said about the ‘Lolly Gobble Bliss Bomb Two-inch Adapter’, the better.

There were some objects I recognized, even though they appeared in a different context.  I, for one, was unaware that a ‘Dutch-oven’ was something you could purchase for the very reasonable price of one hundred and seven dollars and fifty cents.  Who’d have thought? I feel misled.

On my third trip, I took my brother.  In the genetic lottery, my brother scooped the pool when it came to being handy.  If you were to give me a set of instructions and ask me to construct an infant’s cradle, I’d fail on every level.  There’d be nothing to show for my efforts other than a pile of splintered wood and smoldering wreckage.  My brother, on the other hand, built his own crib as a newborn using a cordless power drill.  He also added a small gazebo and a feature wall.  Show off.

If hardware stores were a principality, my brother would be King.  As it is, he walked into that place like he owned it and other patrons doffed their hats and referred to him as ‘your Majesty’. With confidence and great certainty, he navigated through the aisles like someone who knew exactly how and when to use a Fernuggin Nut.  Within minutes, he had retrieved me from the small base camp I had established over near the outdoor furniture settings and we were on our way. 

The fourth trip was showing off on my part.  Having received a royal pardon from my brother, I returned to get a Shaka-shaka Wing Wang Doodle Cordless Drill Bit before surrendering my inhibitions completely and splurging on a Dutch Oven.  As I write, I am surrounded by a sea of instructions and bits and pieces of everything and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that I’ll never figure out how to put them all together, despite my left-handed hammer.  After all, I am not a handy man.

For Better or Worse, Music is the roadmap to your soul

I have a lot of CDs.  For those who don’t remember, CDs (or ‘compact discs’) were how you purchased music back when people still bought music rather than rented it.  Hard to imagine now, I know.  I used to buy CDs weekly.  Each Saturday, I’d take a trip to the store and make what I hoped would be wise and judicious selections.  I’d fossick around for hours before marching up to the counter. As I did, I’d always be looking for some flash of recognition from the person tallying my purchases – a small facial inflection that said ‘this person really knows their stuff.’  I don’t know why approval is so important when it comes to music, it just is.

My purchases were a mix of the well-researched and pure, gut instinct.  It might have been an article I’d read about the band or a review in a music magazine that piqued my musical interest.  Or the cover.  More often than not, I wouldn’t have heard the songs before buying them.  It was a leap of faith into the musical unknown.  An act of curiosity designed to expand my horizons.  Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t.  There are definitely some CDs that were played once in the car on the way back from shopping and were never played again. 

The role of CDs in my life has changed.  I used to have a box of CDs that I carried around in the car, swapping out the contents based on my taste at the time.  I did this to ensure that I had access to high quality music whenever I was driving.  Traffic lights were opportunities to change discs.  During this time, I mastered the art of being able to swap CDs without looking.  In my house, every flat surface was occupied by a small pile of CDs, waiting patiently to be played.  No more.

I was in high school when compact discs first appeared. It was in a music class and the teacher spoke of CDs as if they were an invention that would rival penicillin in terms of sheer usefulness to human kind.  I couldn’t tell you the name of the piece, but it was classical music rather than pop.  The teacher put it in and pressed play before a look of pure serenity came over his face.  This, he claimed, was nothing short of a miracle.  The difference, it was said, was quality.

I was a tape person at the time.  Most kids were.  I owned very few records and generally avoided them.  The record player was located in the living room. This meant that music played on the record player would be music the whole house would have to listen to. There are seven people in my immediate family – the chances of consensus on anything, much less music, were slim to none.  My father owned records by the Randy Van Horne Singers and of the Beatles once predicted that ‘people would never tolerate that kind of rubbish’; he wasn’t going to think much of the things I wanted to play.  In Venn diagram terms, there was nothing to work with.

Music is personal.  Which is why tape decks were so vitally important.  I had a tape deck in my room and there I could listen to anything I wanted.  I could also tape songs I liked off the radio.  This was an art in itself.  You had to have the tape cued up and leap upon the ‘record’ button within the first two seconds of your song coming on.  Sometimes the disc jockey would ruin it by talking over the intro.  (Surely they knew they were ruining the home taping efforts of teenagers everywhere when they did this.  Maybe that was the point.)

I was proud of my efforts.  Every mix tape was a work of art and the latest tape was always the best one I’d ever made.  I don’t know what became of those cassettes.  I’m not sure I even own a tape deck now.  It goes to show how far the cassette has fallen – from indispensible to relic within a couple of decades.  

As I packed my CDs into boxes this week, I was confronted by every choice I’d ever made on those Saturday mornings.  Some I was proud of.  Some were mystifying.  More than just my musical taste at a particular point in time, these CDs were tangible evidence of the person I was trying to be.  They were like musical fingerprints.  

A box set of Maria Callas because I wanted to understand opera (not sure I succeeded, still trying though).  A copy of ‘What’s Going On’ by Marvin Gaye because it was reputed to be one of the greatest albums of all time (which it is).   Dave Pike’s ‘Jazz for the Jet Set’ because the cover had a lady with a fishbowl on her head.  (Which, apparently, was enough to prompt me to buy it.) What owning a copy of Aaron Carter’s debut album says about me is not worth thinking about.  Yikes.

Being reminded of all those decisions is kind of melancholy.  But the strangest thing about packing up my CDs is wondering whether I’ll ever see them again.  There was a time in my life when they were organized on shelves in alphabetical order and in categories.  Now they’re housed in cardboard.  It’s quite the fall from grace.  Packing them away is an oddly melancholy experience. But they served me well. Doubtless they’ll be packed away for some time yet.  Maybe they can hang out with my cassettes and exchange musical war stories. I get the feeling that my CDs and cassettes would have a lot in common.  Rock on.