Monday, December 26, 2011

Don't they know it's Christmas time

As a jewish kid growing up in suburban Melbourne, Christmas Day was the most boring day of the year. An enforced rest day for backyard test match cricket. My friend Mark was ensconced in a day of feasting and present-getting with his family and unlike most days of the summer holidays where I would show up at his house by 8am accompanied by my cricket bat, on Christmas Day his place was off limits. My parents were conscious that sister Nat and I may feel a bit left out with all of our friends parading their new bikes, scooters, skateboards and fancy games after Christmas and so for a few years gave us a few token presents so we wouldn't be too jealous. But along with the presents, we received the news very early on in life that not only was there no Santa Claus, but indeed there was no Christmas. We were jewish and didn't believe all that stuff about Jesus. Nat hated the idea of not receiving presents when everybody else was receiving them and I remember her bemoaning the fact on a few occasions that she wished we were born christian. It was difficult for me not to harbour similar desires at times. That religion seemed to come with more tangible benefits than our own, including one day dedicated purely to the eating of chocolate. None of our friends seemed particularly caught up in all the God stuff that supposedly went with it. They just got the good stuff. Jews seemed to go the other way with their big days. On Yom Kippur, the biggest of all, you got to spend the whole day bored out of your brain at the synagogue atoning for your yearly sins. Listening to the rabbi go on for hours on end in hebrew, a language I didn't understand at all. The adults (anyone over 13) weren't allowed to eat or drink anything at all from sunset the previous evening until sunset on Yom Kippur night, so it was starvation and thirst as well as boredom for them. Relatives would come over and pinch your cheeks and give you a kiss with their stale breath from having had their saliva completely evaporated, leaving only the stale odour of meals from a previous day. Compared to presents and a sumptuous feast for the christians, it seemed so unfair. And there wasn't a lot of religious tolerance for a couple of jewish kids in the suburbs in the 70s. Where we lived, everybody was pretty much christian so we were the odd ones out. Nat was forbidden from playing with a girl named Susan Baulch because her German mother didn't want her playing with a filthy jewish Christ killer. Pretty difficult for a grade 3 girl to understand when, as far as she could remember, she hadn't actually killed anyone and her activities were more likely to involve Barbie dolls and a Barbie camper than hammering nails through someone's wrist and securing them to a cross. Maybe Susan's mother would have approved more if they were Klaus Barbie dolls and a Barbie transport train. In fact it was only really anti-semitism that actually made me identify strongly with being jewish through my school years. Taunts at school about being a fourby-two (rhyming slang for jew) and being ostracised by kids at various stages for that reason had me identifying strongly with those unfortunates who had to face the spanish inquisition or who were marched to death camps in Germany. In fact the more i came to know of the world, the more it seemed to me that religion was the reason for the majority of the problems between peoples and the many wars that resulted. The catholics and the protestants in Ireland. The jews and the muslims in the middle east. The sunni and the shiite in Iraq. The hindus and the muslims in India. And a litany of other conflicts. All of these religions that had the same foundation at their core, which was purported to be "love thy neighbour" but who seemed actually to be leaving unsaid "but if you don't love thy neighbour in exactly the way we tell you we'll kick the shit out of you". As I got older, I left the present envy behind, but I still came to admire Christmas, because from what I could gather, people seemed to be genuinely more accepting and friendly on that day. Peace and love to fellow man actually seemed true for one day, even from the bigoted bloke down the street who every other day would crack it because some chinks had moved into the neighbourhood. People everywhere smiled and laughed and offered their genuine best wishes. They put up cheesy decorations on their house which I never got into, but it seemed to make them happy which was the main thing. But still, for a jewish family, come Christmas Day, there was nothing. None of my friends could believe that there were no presents (they stopped coming when I was about 8) and not even a special meal with the family. Nothing. In fact that's not totally true, it was always at Christmas time that the interstate jewish sports carnival would be held, typically with the carnival welcome ball being held on Christmas night. The carnival moved from one Australian city to another each year and comprised many sports and had a rich history. My father was a carnival stalwart, representing Victoria in cricket a record number of times and my parents actually met at one Perth carnival. When the carnival was in Melbourne, Nat and I would be bored doing nothing on Christmas Day and then stay home with a babysitter at night while mum and dad went off to the ball. Being interstate at a carnival though was a different story. There, being surrounded by jews, it was as if Christmas didn't even exist. It was a completely jewish sporting and social affair where the world of the christians and their festival seemed a long way away. But here there was a different kind of us and them that became apparent to me as I got older and also started to play cricket for Victoria at carnival. There were those who went to the main jewish school Mt. Scopus and those, like Nat and I, who didn't. It somehow seemed that we were in the minority everywhere we went, even within the minority. And the bigotry, while manifesting itself in different forms, was no less prevalent. There were of course exceptions and I did have friends at the carnivals, but I couldn't help feeling that the kind of insular hierarchical structure that existed was a crock of shit. Especially when I seemed way down on that hierarchy. While undoubtedly the sport was of a high standard and taken very seriously, in hindsight the main function of the carnivals essentially seemed to be to match up the male and the female jews so as to create more jews. But perhaps I'm just bitter because I didn't seem to be getting anywhere near as much sex as everybody else there, even though the pheromones seemed to be dripping from everywhere.

It wasn't until my late teens that I actually got to properly experience Christmas for myself. Albeit somebody else's. By that stage many of my friends seemed envious that I didn't have to go running around the shops frantically at the last minute trying to find presents for all my relatives like they did. Instead I would just casually drop in on various Christmasing families on December 25th and soak in some of their wonderful Christmas spirit. The Spicers. The Mollets. The Martins. They all welcomed me in on the day, and made me feel a part of it all, to which I am still very grateful. They didn't care that I was brought up with different beliefs and they didn't force any of theirs on me. They just welcomed me as a loved honorary member of their family for the time that I was with them. It was only when I started going out with Tori however that I came to experience the full extravaganza that is Christmas. At that stage, there were no kids involved and we were the youngest ones. We'd rock up at Tori's folks' (Mike and Maggie), along with Tori's sister Liz and her husband Malcolm, first thing Christmas morning and the present fest would begin. I'd never seen so many. After about 45 minutes of present opening I recall looking over at their elaborately decorated tree and seeing that no apparent dent had been made in the enormous pile of colourfully wrapped parcels that lay underneath. It was slightly overwhelming but intoxicating all the same. We pigged out until we were completely stuffed with food and then pigged out some more.

At home with Tori, I always felt uncomfortable about having a christmas tree. While the religion from my upbringing has slowly but surely dissipated over the years, I couldn't bring myself to adopt another set of religious beliefs or have them on display in my own home. And having a traditional tree with angels and symbols of the little lord jesus was just too much for me to take. Tori didn't really believe all the religious doctrine but she did love Christmas and all the trimmings that went along with it. So in the end we compromised. A tree, but a native Australian tree rather than the typical symbolic pine. Fancy decorations but no Jesus. Absolutely no nativity scenes. So somehow we've sort of distilled Christmas to fit our judeo-christian-nonbelieving-heathen mindsets. When we were living in England and couldn't be with Tori's family, we had a wild and fun assortment of Christmases together in an array of different places. A white Christmas in the quaint Essex village of St. Osyth. One involving a rare species of Norfolk fungi and some hilarity in the English seaside town of Brighton. Another in Amsterdam that was a little too indulgent on duty free champagne, hotel room service and other local produce. And most bizarrely but very fondly, one on the outskirts of the southern Jordanian town of Aqaba where the two christian girls present were outnumbered by the muslims and the jew, who celebrated Christmas for and with them on the banks of the red sea under a bedouin tent.

Only seven weeks after Tori and I moved back to Australia from England, Christmas eve 2003, I was celebrating with some former work colleagues at their annual breakup when a call came through from my mother. A primeval howl came down the phone that chilled me to the core. I'd never heard a sound like it. Without her even saying one word I knew that my father was dead. Mum had arrived home from work to find dad on the stair landing where he'd fallen after having a massive heart attack. No warning. No previous history. Just game over. I sobered up immediately, jumped in the car, picked up Nat and drove over to mum and dad's house. By the time we got there, the ambulance crew had already placed my father's body in the bed to await collection from the jewish undertakers, known as the Chevra Kadisha. Each of us got to spend some time alone with my father in the hours that we waited for them to come by, which was as it turns out a special way to be able to say goodbye. When they finally arrived and loaded up his body to be taken away it was after 10pm. The jews like to bury the dead as soon as possible and the Chevra Kadisha suggested that we should have the funeral the next day. "Christmas Day?", I questioned. They could see nothing wrong with that at all. I told them that I knew we were all jews, but my father had many non-jewish friends and acquaintances who I knew would want to come and pay their respects. Including my wife and her family. It was not going to be possible to contact everyone in the next 12 hours, have them abandon their family Christmas plans and come to a funeral instead. It seemed to be asking a lot. We agreed then that the funeral would be Boxing Day. That was more fitting anyway as historically I would spend Boxing Day at the MCG with my father. Many people attended his funeral and he was given a fine farewell around about the time that Brett Lee would have been taking the new ball from the members end.

Since Jaz and Finn came along, Christmas has taken another twist. They love Christmas for the presents and decorations and who could blame them. They get so excited in the build up to the day that it almost makes them sick with anticipation. They love singing carols and annually get miffed about my refusal to go and see them singing by candlelight down in Warrandyte. While I have no problem with the fact that judaism has completely left my life as a belief system, I still have difficulty hearing my offspring singing songs about some biblical character who, through no fault of his own, had a major part to play in the persecution of my forebears through history. But I love the genuine goodwill that emanates from this particular day. And I'm happy that I now have a part in it. A set aside special day to share a loving time with family and friends. Where gluttony is embraced and a nap on the couch is the expected outcome. And I still love also that Christmas Day is Boxing Day eve. The night before the first day of the Melbourne test match. That part of my childhood remains intact. After a cricket free day for Christmas, play always resumes on Boxing Day.

Are we there yet?

I'm not really sure where we are with the big trip now. Even though we're not yet back in Warrandyte it sort of seems over. Everybody appears to have emotionally abandoned ship. Tori has had enough of walking 100 metres to the bathroom especially if it involves trying to bathe Kim. She wants her own bathroom and a laundry with a washing machine now, which is totally understandable. The kids have hit a squabbling stage where I periodically want to bang their heads together. They just want to go back and see their friends and have their own rooms with proper size beds and the ability to shut the door and lock each other and us out. Kim has reached a stage where he has worked out that if he can make a constant groan like moaning sound that he will get otherwise occupied people to pay him more attention. Controlled crying looks like it won't be too far away for him after we get back and he has his own room somewhere away from the rest of us. Geographically speaking we are currently in Sydney and have been for a few days, a place we have all been often enough for it not to be particularly novel. Not in an exotic kind of a way anyhow. Tori's folks Mike and Maggie, the kids' Grandma and Grandi, live here. And I guess with family comes a sense of being home. As does meeting up with a load of friends here in Sydney. Having driven somewhere in the region of 40,000km we are now only 900km from Melbourne. A short hop in the scheme of things. But I was actually in Melbourne for a few days last week. And I was in Sydney for a night a couple of weeks ago, before we actually arrived in Sydney. It's all a bit confusing. Perhaps I should rewind the tale a bit to where we were camped in the idyllic little beachside haven of Crescent Head. A beautiful location on the banks of the Killick Creek just where it spills out into the ocean. The plan had been to chill out there for a week before cruising on into Sydney for the run up to Christmas. And it was all going along nicely too. Swimming, boogie boarding, a bit of basketball up at the local court, the stroll for coffees in the morning, evening beers and barbys. There was even discussion of bringing out the fishing rods once more to see if we could have any better luck here. But then all of a sudden my mum was in hospital. Her back had given out again and the specialist had sent her directly to the Royal Melbourne. She was in agony despite the strong painkillers they were giving her and sounded frail even down the end of a phone line. Her back has been particularly dodgy for a couple of months now, having already had one spell in hospital a short while back, but this seemed even worse. After a bit of a discussion with sister Nat, I decided to fly down to lend some support. My idyllic time in Crescent Head came to an abrupt end as I threw my laptop and some clothes into a pack and next thing we were driving down to Port Macquarie airport where I was to get a flight to Sydney and then onward to Melbourne. Only two hours after deciding to fly back, I was watching the ground disappear out the window of the little twin propeller plane.

Mum was in a bad way. Not only was her back causing her grief between the doses of morphine but she had somehow contracted pneumonia and could hardly breathe. She was propped up in bed with oxygen tubes stuck up her nose and a very pale complexion. I was immediately glad that I had made the decision to come down. And so the next three days were spent at the hospital visiting mum or hanging out with Nat. While the circumstances were far from ideal, it was great to spend some time with them both. By the time I was due to head back on Thursday, Mum was starting to feel a bit better. She still had a fair way to go but seemed to be on the right track at least. I'd actually hoped that one positive benefit of my trip away from the van would be that I wouldn't have Kim waking me up through the night and I may actually get some sleep. But strange beds and unfamiliar surrounds invariably cause me restless nights and this was not to be the case. We had to be out of the caravan park by 10am on Thursday morning, so I had no real flexibility in how long I could stay in Melbourne. I was booked on the 6am flight on the Thursday so that we had some chance of being out almost on time. The night before I'd decided to stay with Lisa and Dan in the city as it just seemed logistically easier to be based centrally before my mad dash back to New South Wales began. Around 11:30pm when I was going to bed, I couldn't believe I was actually setting my alarm for 4:40am, so that I could get my taxi. In retrospect, it would have been luxurious to sleep until that time. Instead, I woke up hourly until I realised at 3:30am that there would be no more sleep and I might as well just get up then. And so started a mad and sleep deprived day.
Waking up so early I had no dramas getting to the airport on time and was on the plane when it took off bound for Sydney at 6am. Connecting flight to Port Macquarie was all good too and we landed on schedule around 9am. As I walked down the steps of the plane on to the tarmac, I was looking towards the small terminal expectantly for Jaz and Finn who usually tend to be right out front to greet me. Nobody. Well it's not unheard of for Tori to be late, so after a lap of the terminal to superfluously make sure they weren't somewhere else in the tiny building, I tried to ring her. No answer on her phone. And then I realised I had a voice message. "Hi there. It's me", said Tori's recorded voice down the line. "There's been a huge pile up on the highway near Kempsey and the roads blocked off. I don't know when we'll be able to get to the airport. The road could be closed for hours. I think there was a car chase. I forgot my phone so I'm using the guy in the car behind me's phone. I'll try and call you when I know what's happening". I dialed the number that she had called me from and was soon speaking to some bloke named Jerry. "Your wife's just over there. Hang on I'll get her for you", he said. It seems that a couple of young guys had tried to outrun a police car and the police had set up a road block including the use of tyre spikes. In a bid to avoid it all, the runaway car had careened into a ute sending it rolling down the bank where it smashed into a pole. It then slammed into another car  before rolling over itself and coming to a halt upside down on the side of the road. The highway was blocked off, being both the scene of a serious accident and also a crime. Police were suggesting that the road would be closed for hours and that drivers should instead travel via Armidale, some 400km extra on the journey. Tori suggested that if I could get a taxi up to the accident scene, I could perhaps walk around it to the other side where she was waiting and then we could drive back to Crescent Head. It seemed a much better alternative than waiting for who knows how many hours, so I went to look for a cab. There were none to be found. I went to the car rental counter to see if they would tell me how much it might cost to get a cab to just south of Kempsey. "It'll cost loads", said one bloke. "Easily a hundred bucks. If you can hang on five minutes, I'll give you a lift up there", he generously offered. And with that, I was travelling up towards Kempsey with Dave, the owner of 1st Class car rentals. I'd already called the caravan park to tell them of our predicament and that there was no way we'd be out by 10am (it was already about ten to). In the comfort of Dave's car, we got to around 7km or so south of the crash site where we hit the end of the queue of cars that were waiting for the road to reopen. I decided to get out and walk. I passed hundreds of stationary vehicles. People were out on the road on their phones, kids were playing soccer on the road, a family were gathered around a laptop watching movies. I probably walked several kilometres before the road inevitably was reopened and the traffic started to move. I put out my thumb to hitch and watched in amazement as many of the cars I'd passed, the occupants of which I'd good naturedly bantered with on the way, just cruised straight past me ignoring my request for a lift. The crisis was over and it seemed that everybody was happy to get back on with their individual lives now without concern for someone in need of assistance. Eventually I flagged down a car transport truck. "Jump in", the driver said and he took me to where Tori and the kids were waiting. Completely exhausted I clambered in and we began the journey from Kempsey down to Crescent Head.
And we were almost back there when we hit another traffic snag. A house fire was raging on the outskirts of Crescent Head and the road had been closed until the fire crew could get it under control. No cars were allowed to pass the barricade of fire trucks and emergency support vehicles. It just didn't seem real. I'd had so little sleep that I was quite prepared to believe I was imagining the whole thing. But real it was and eventually, after another hour or so, we were able to drive the last few kilometres back to the caravan park. Thankfully Tori and the kids had managed to pack up everything except the van awning so I didn't have to do too much in the way of van preparation. I dropped in to the office to explain to them what had happened. We were all packed up and it was now around 1pm. I'd had less than four hours of broken sleep and been up since 3:30AM. My eyes felt like they were dropping out of my skull. I would have liked nothing more than to fall on to my bed and sleep for a good four or five hours. Instead I took a few deep breaths and drove us and the van 420km to Sydney.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Mullumbimby madness

It is nigh on twenty years since Tori and I first ventured up to the lush green environs of Mullumbimby. We were bussing and hitching up the coast to escape the Melbourne winter and were hoping to stay here with our friend Brian for a few days. Tales that had filtered down to us in Melbourne from friends who had visited this part of the world were of a magical place, surrounded by subtropical rainforest and with a colourful assortment of folk who inhabited the dwellings there. Sister Nat had lived up there some years earlier, I'm sure adding to some of that colour and legend herself. She'd lived in a place called the yellow house with a couple of other girls. Collectively they'd come to be known as the "rat people" due to their choice of pet and probably the odd way that they looked compared to the locals down in the more conservative town of Mullum. Before the 1970s, the area had essentially been a rural area of farmland and banana plantations. The coming of the hippies and their alternative ways and appearance changed the flavour of the area forever. And with them they brought crops of their own. Having not spoken to Brian for some months since I'd mentioned that we'd be coming up on that first visit, and not knowing where he actually lived, the first obstacle was to find him. I knew that he didn't actually live in the town of Mullum, but somewhere up in the hills with all of the other hippies. We had no address and no phone number for him.  So our quest began in the Chincogan Tavern, the pub that he frequented. He'd told me that he was well known in town due to his regular poetry recitals and the humorous plays that he  organised. So I gingerly wandered up to the bar and asked the bartender if he knew the whereabouts of Brian the Poet, feeling like I'd just entered some kind of mystical role playing game. "I don't know where Brian is, but Jeremy will", he said as he pointed across the pub towards a guy sitting at a table on his own nursing a lunchtime beer. I wandered over and said "I'm looking for Brian. The barman said you might know where he is". Jeremy looked us up and down and replied in a friendly voice, "We've been expecting you". He picked up a bar coaster, flipped it over and proceeded to sketch out a map on the back. "Brian lives in Upper Main Arm, about 11km out from Mullum", he explained as he traced the route along the map with his finger. "If you start hitching up Main Arm Road, you're sure to get a lift. Brian lives in the dome house. Anyone going up there will know where it is". We had a quick beer with Jeremy, loaded on our heavy backpacks and began our walk up towards Main Arm Road. After only 5 minutes or so a car approached and stopped as soon as we put out a hitching finger. "We're going up to the dome house if you're able to take us", we said. "Oh. You've come to see Brian. He's been waiting for you", he stated rather than questioned. After ten chatty minutes in the car we were dropped off at the side of the road where a track went off into the bush. "Just walk up there a couple of hundred metres, take the fork on the left and you'll be right there". The track led through thick forest, full of bird song and noisy insects. Forest so thick and with such large trees that as soon as the path curved around, it was as if the road was never there. And after walking a few minutes, Brian's current abode came into view. A structure looking like an enormous wooden golf ball that had missed the fairway and dropped down into a forest. Inside was Brian. He said he'd been expecting us for a few days and had sent out his spies to look for us. Jeremy was one of his most reliable, he said. And for the next few days we had Brian's "gold pass tour" of Mullumbimby, going places, meeting an assortment of interesting characters and visiting all sorts of houses that seemed just as intriguing and magical as Brian's. Reggae Al and his girlfriend Nerada lived in a house with no doors, sharing their space with all the creatures of the forest, including the largest huntsman spider I'd ever seen in my life, sitting on the wall just behind me. Pete and Leonie had the place down in Mills Valley where jam sessions would take place on the large balcony. Rolie lived in his house on stilts on the outskirts of Mullum and Pete and Sandra lived in the village itself. He took us swimming at "Hell's Hole" which was a fresh water swimming hole sitting on the edge of a cliff looking a couple of hundred feet down to the forest below. We climbed Mt. Warning, so named by Captain Cook more than 200 years ago, because it is the first land that can be sighted from sea when approaching the east coast at that latitude. And we stayed with Dick and Jac, who lived in a caravan on their land in Uki while they were building their house. While swimming in the creek down there with their dog Archie, I saw the largest snake I had ever seen in my life, a diamond back python that must have been around 18 feet long. Its body was about as thick as my leg, and its head was several metres away tangled through the lantana. In fact its head was so far away, I was able to run my hand along its lower body as it slithered off through the scrub knowing that there was no way it could actually turn around and bite me, even if it wanted to. The whole region around Mullumbimby took on mythical qualities in the minds of both Tori and I. Everybody we had met had been so friendly and happy to open their doors to us. The forest was magical and as beautiful as any place I had seen. We talked for ages about moving up there, but just didn't get it together, not really sure what we'd actually do for a living if we did live there. Instead we have periodically dropped in over the years, to visit the people and the place. On one trip I got to experience cricket Mullumbimby style. Played on the picturesque ground up at Wanganui which was an interesting venue in its own right. Fielding at deep backward point meant fielding in the dip at a level a couple of feet lower than the rest of the ground. The game was a competitive affair with some decent skills on display and serious attitudes of determination. At the drinks break all of the players left the field and gathered under the wooden pavilion, I assumed for a liquid refreshment. Instead, a production line of papers, tobacco and locally grown produce appeared and a large number of spliffs were blazed up under the afternoon sun. The locals are so proud of their horticultural results that I felt it would be rude to refuse, so partook my share heartily. With my perspective suitably rearranged as we walked back out on to the ground, the skipper came over, tossed me the ball and said "have a bowl". Somewhat in a haze, I made my way to the bowling crease to trundle down a few overs of legspin. Like all good gear, the joint came on in waves with me becoming more stoned as each over progressed. I think I must have peaked during my second over which seemed to have me right in the zone, beating the bat a couple of times and right on line and length. By the third over I'd become slightly more erratic on all fronts, was still wicketless (though feeling unlucky!) and was happy to resume my place back in the field, taking in the game under the beautiful backdrop of mountains and thick rainforest. I think we won. I don't really remember too much of my time at the batting crease, other than that a well hit shot along the ground would pull up sharply in the grass, having been fashioned from a cow paddock into a sporting venue not that many years earlier.

Brian is still in Mullum today, as are a number of the other folk we met on that first visit. Trying to track him down is no less of a process these days, even with the invention of mobile phones. His spends most of its time uncharged, or somewhere that he isn't and anyway, there's still no reception up in the hills. Our van is stationed at the macadamia farm in Upper Main Arm, across the road from the yellow house where Nat used to live. The area is as beautiful as ever, though the town has stepped up a bit from a basic country town to something more shiny. A product of the  real estate boom. Brian is still writing and producing plays, so not much has changed in that regard either. Though now he is the proud father of a beautiful 17 year old daughter and so she remains a large part of his focus. As for the local produce. It is still as bountiful and strong as it always was. I've made sure my manners are still in check. After all, it would still be rude to refuse.