Friday, November 26, 2010

Life's A Beach: Chapter 8

Well, listen – it had to happen eventually: I’ve turned thirty. I’m still waiting for the wisdom and poise that I was sure I would possess by this age... Any day now...


On the eve of the big day, Bronwyn and I went to see the Sam Powers magic show that Mark and I loved so much when we saw it in June. I came no closer to understanding some of the really magical tricks and was no less impressed by how skilfully they pulled off the ones I could understand – like the handcuffed-in-a-trunk switcheroo that has to have a trick door or something but who cares – how do they do it so quickly?!! Sam Powers looks something like Jake Gyllenhaal (cute!), has a voice like Job on “Arrested Development” and does funny things with his eyes for extra effect, so it’s all very ridiculous and is the best show ever – other than the dank, stale-beer-and-sweat smell of the nightclub where he performs.

The only part I don’t like is when he and Robin, his impossibly fat-free assistant, wait at the top of the stairs to shake hands with the audience members as they leave. Mark and I tried to sneak past last time, as SP was chatting someone up, but Robin stopped us and said Sam would be really disappointed if he didn’t shake our hands. Questionable, but whatever. This time, Bron and I were the last out so we had lots of time to anticipate the big shake and decide what to say. Now, I’m not someone who hangs around after a show to meet the star: this is partly because I don’t like to see performers up-close and harshly lit, which only breaks the illusion and pulls me abruptly out of the mood they created; more importantly, though, I know myself well enough that I dread whatever weird thing is going to come out of my mouth. This time I was determined to play it cool – my only specific instructions to myself were: “don’t mention that you’ve seen the show before.” Sam Powers, though, has a mighty grip and a piercing gaze – he shook my hand and then just stood there holding it and looking intensely into my eyes, as per his funny-weird stage persona, which meant, obviously, that I felt the need to keep talking. Great show, thanks so much - “actually, I’ve seen the show before. We liked it so much we brought a friend – not the royal we, just Mark and me – Mark didn’t come, though, he has class on Thurdays – finance – he’s doing his MBA – crazy year, with all the studying! – that’s Bronwyn over there” – more of that, then at one point I said something about trying to spot the tricks, which is what you’re not supposed to say to an illusionist, gushed about how quick and efficient they are in their switcheroos, and when SP asked where I was from and said Toronto was a beautiful place, I made a weird snorty sound and over-enthusiastically kind of shouted “well, I certainly think so!” before pulling my hand away, forcing Robin into a hand shake and then almost body-checking her on my way past. (Bronwyn: “what was that all about?!”) It was all very manic and very embarrassing and I was dismayed to discover, yet again, my complete and utter lack of poise. Good show but I won’t be going back.

The big day itself was lovely: Bronwyn had decorated the house with a banner and balloons and we headed straight out to the river for hike and swim in one of our many favourite spots at Stoney Creek. In the afternoon my mom treated me to a spa package – my first facial ever and a definite life changer – and then, with my fresh, glowing, youthified face, it was off to dinner with Mark at “C’est Bon,” which boasts a properly French kitchen staff and a coq-au-vin to die for, not to mention the crème brulée. So good that we *almost* didn’t have room for the lemon cake that Bron had waiting for us at home... Altogether an excessively satisfying and sumptuous day.

(Swimsuits are rolled down - we're not sitting around nekked!)


After all this pampering, I needed to do something that properly marked the beginning of a new decade, so Mark and I went skydiving. (Bron decided that it wasn’t her bag.) We caught the Tandem Cairns bus in town and rode to Innisfail, where there was this beautiful house – in the middle of a field – full of hip, tattooed people standing around in goggles and jumpsuits. Now, I had been pretty calm about the whole thing since the beginning, other than a brief bout of nervous excitement when I made the booking, and was waiting for proper anxiety to kick in. I was a bit nervous on the bus ride and through our three-minute, sitting-on-the-couch instruction session, and of course felt a whole different kind of anxiety when it was time to put on my skydiving pants – which have a colour-coded stripe on the side so that everyone can see you’ve been eating too much birthday cake and you’re wearing the size that’s designed for very tall men and they’re still, frankly, a little snug – but it’s when we watched the first batch of divers land that the queasiness began in earnest. I had planned for everything – hair in braids so it wouldn’t get in my tandem guy’s face, perfume so he’d have a pleasant ride down – but hadn’t really considered that I was actually going to jump out of a plane.

My guy was named Lee and he was really non-emotional about the whole thing – luckily, Mark’s guy was very gentle and thorough and thought to explain that after the parachute opens they undo two hooks to give us better agility in landing – otherwise that double click and suddenly loose harness would have scared the bejeesus out of me. (He also explained that we needed to curve backwards when we jumped, like bananas, and when we were doing "good bananas" they'd let us put our arms out.) We watched the first divers, all of whom were working towards their next jumping licenses and were somewhere between their 30th and 200th jumps, and then, just like that, it was our turn. I don’t know how to describe how I felt, but there was definitely a lot of dread involved. When I knew Lee was filming, I tried unconvincingly to hide my fear; the shots where I didn’t realize the camera was on are the most revealing of my pure terror. We squished into the plane, which was just exactly big enough for the eight of us who sat straddling each other on the floor, and when I looked at how high we were and then Lee told me that we were only about halfway up – have you ever had one of those moments where you realize you’ve made a huge mistake? Then the other divers starting jumping out of the plane and I had a full-blown internal panic attack: the sight of people throwing themselves into the sky is terrifying. Mark went next and I was scared out of my mind for him, so that by the time it was my turn I think I was numb to fear and was just resigned to my fate. As far as I knew, we shuffled over to the open door and rolled straight out, but I’ve since seen in the video that we sat for a really long time, presumably with my heart beating so wildly and my mind in lock-down survival mode, keeping me from realizing what was actually happening.

(We're only halfway up?!!)

And here we go...

And then, we were out!

It didn’t feel like we were falling at all, but rather like we were just lying on a big gust of air, cold and painful around my ears.

They tell you to shout and scream so that you’ll breathe, which I did, and then the chute opened (and I briefly thought I was going to vomit) and floating down was the dreamiest, most serene experience of my life. Looking down at my legs hanging over the earth – crazy.

Unfortunately, close to the end, Lee thought I needed a bit more fun and he did this spinning around thing that made me actually taste the vomit I was about to puke out in his face, so I told him I was happier with just... floating. I was really worried about throwing up and messing up the landing, but I managed to hold it in and get my legs up as instructed, and then it was over.

Landing: getting your feet up is hard in the pants and harness!

Painful landing: snapped my feet!

I felt queasy all day, as I do after any plane ride, but there was no left-over adrenaline, no panic, no rush – just “well, wasn’t that nice.” And ear pain. Skydiving: check!


Bron travelled around Australia for a month before coming back to stay with us again. Having been unable to cook for so long made her feel all domestic and food-y, to Mark’s and my endless eating pleasure. Between whipping up lasagnes and stuffed spinach gozemes, she’d spontaneously make pretzels, baklava, specialty muesli and ginger-chocolate cake – and we ate every last bite of it.

As for local fauna, before even coming to Australia, Bronwyn didn’t like birds – couldn’t stand the swooping. Then, like anyone who spends more than three hours here, she developed a deep and lasting hatred of cockatoos. We get the ear-piercing squawking, the poo and the pervasive, wet-bird smell, but Bron also had a window facing directly into the trees where they sleep at night – I’m talking hundreds of spooky white bodies glowing in the darkness when she was trying to just forget about creepy birds and get to sleep. In a ridiculous stroke of bad luck, she also happened to be dive-bombed twice in Australia: people wear glasses backwards to fool the magpies and keep them from bombing the back of their heads – they also wear ice cream containers so that when the birds aren’t fooled, at least they won’t be able to tear out chunks of skin. They get crazy about their nests and god help you if you walk anywhere near their babies. (There’s a bird up here, can’t remember its name, that specifically builds its nest in the middle of fields: the kids at one of my schools have learned to play footy around the general nest area and to just keep their heads down when these aggressive little birds decide to pick a fight.)

So we did a lot of eating, a lot of complaining about birds. We did some driving lessons so that Bron could drive a manual car – success! – and did some shopping because she needed some summer clothes – except that I, who claim to hate shopping, always ended up with way more loot than she did. (The highlight was when we heard “Believe It Or Not, I’m Walking On Air” in two separate stores! What are the chances?!) We kept running, more or less, except that I’ve started getting a major cramp after 15-18 minutes, every time, no exception. I’ve tried running first thing in the morning, last thing before bed, with water, without water, with food, without food, uphill, downhill, straight – doesn’t matter. Does anybody know what’s going on here? Will I forever have to run in 15-minute blocks?

We also went to the waterfall circuit, which she’d already seen, and man, are the waterfalls pretty. It’s funny because you hike or drive to the site and have a swim if possible, and then you don’t really know what to do. Do I just sit here and keep looking at it? At what point is my enjoyment of the waterfall officially over? Walking away always feels a bit callous.

Now Bronwyn’s gone and we have to do all the cooking ourselves. And there’s no one to swim with because Mark only goes into water that feels like a bath. And I have to run by myself. And I have no one to talk to. Boo. Boo to Bronwyn leaving.


Then it was Mark’s birthday. He went into it on the right foot, as he gained a year at the very last minute: he apparently had spent this whole year thinking he was already thirty-six and was tickled pink, when I mentioned that he had a few more days to enjoy as a thirty-five-year-old, to realize that he was a whole year further from forty than he thought.

We also thought that he’d be writing a finance exam on his birthday, but some classes got reorganized and he had the week-end free, which we spent in a little “Balinese-style chalet” in Mission Beach. It rained the whole time, as we expected would happen (welcome to North Queensland!) and which is why we had chosen somewhere roomy and self-contained rather than being stuck for three days in a hotel room. It was nice to be able to just lie around, listening to the rain in the forest, reading or sleeping or watching tv (they had cable!), far from home so that we were off the hook from feeling the need to accomplish anything. Maybe that’s the true sign of getting older, is when a good holiday means having good food and big sleeps.


A few weeks ago we had another week-end road trip, down to Townsville to meet Mark’s newest little nephew, Jona. He was almost four months old when we met him and you want to know what’s cute? A four-month-old baby. He was happy enough to be held by people other than his parents – not indefinitely, but long enough for a good snuggle against his baby soft skin.

As we had anticipated, Mark and I lost out to the baby and were relegated to the camper van, which is parked outside the house in such a way as to face right into the bathroom window and yet require a really long walk to get to the bathroom itself. Lying there in the middle of the night on the lumpy, tiny bed, listening to mosquitoes buzz around my head, the big debate was whether to make the cold dash to the toilet or to stay snugly and warm but with a painfully full bladder. As expected, my bladder prevailed and I ventured out into the night, only to be completely spooked by the many creature sounds I encountered on the way to the bathroom – which was occupied! Bloody hell! I hopped around for a while until I realized that whoever was in there was in for the long haul, so I decided to squat in the bushes, figuring I could be brave for thirty seconds and ignore the animal sounds all around me. Nope! I hadn’t even picked a spot when a monster bat flew over my head just as something brushed against my foot and I moved faster than I have ever moved, high-tailing it back to the camper van. In the end, desperate, cold and scared of my own hair brushing my shoulder – I’m not proud, I’m just telling it like it is – I found what I hoped was a discrete spot right outside the camper van to do the deed, slept fitfully as visions of bats and rodents danced in my head, then snuck around the next morning with a big bucket of water to wash the spot down so that nobody would ever know. The best part was when I went for a toilet run the next night (with a flashlight this time) and it was occupied – except that it wasn’t; they just had the door closed throughout the night. I could have just gone in peace and been done with it! Foiled again!

On the drive down, Mark and I stopped in for dinner at an Indian/Fish & Chips place, which I thought was a bit weird; I wouldn’t move to India and open, say, a Sandwich and Curry shop, as I’d assume that actual Indian people were already making some pretty good curry – much better curry, in fact, than I, a non-curry-expert, could be expected to make. I’d stick to what I was good at: sandwiches. Why the fish and chips? Why not just make really excellent Indian food and leave the traditionally Aussie food alone? Though, really, it’s not like frying up some battered fish and greasy fries is really that hard, so they might as well have a go, since they have the kitchen all set up and ready to go. It was just a thought I had.

About an hour before Townsville, a guy behind us flashed his lights. I figured he was in a hurry so I pulled over and let him by, only to have him drive more slowly in front of me than I had been driving. Eventually I got around him, but he kept flashing his lights. I tried speeding up and he’d stay right behind me – even though they’re really serious about speeding here and you don’t risk it, so for him to catch up to my 40 km/h over the limit is pretty aggressive – then if I got really slow he wouldn’t pass me, but just stayed behind, flashing lights. When I managed to overtake other people to put a few cars between us, he’d end up overtaking them too and would stay right behind me. This went on for about an hour and a half, in the dark and the rain, at the end of which I was losing my mind with frustration and anger and assumed it was a car full of hooligans, playing with me because they thought it was funny. When we finally got off the highway and into town and we stopped at a light, Mark got out of the car and went to give them a piece of his mind – only to find a family, with two kids sleeping in the back and dad completely unaware that there was anything wrong with his lights. Sticking right behind me the whole time is still weird, but all that for nothing. I was completely stressed out and exhausted by the time we got to Mark’s parents’ house and on the way home I was so happy to have an easy drive that I got us a speeding ticket. Hmphf.


I’ve been doing a lot of teaching, often up in Mareeba, where I get the most work. (That’s where I did my remedial reading gig and just finished a contract for a week in kindergarten.) It’s something of a rough school and features a “Youth Transition Centre,” which is a building across the street used for kids who freak out so much that they need to be removed from school and put in a rubber room until they calm down, among other things. After a week in which breaking up a fist fight in my grade six class (and getting punched in the jaw in the process) was just one of many unhappy events, I was nervous when I got to school and was told that I wasn’t doing grade four after all, but would be in the rubber room all day. They’re all getting zooey at this time of year so when I pictured my worst nightmare kids all in the same spot, I considered quitting on the spot, but it turned out to be embarrassingly cruisy: kids come in to sit out their in-school suspensions, high school kids come in as part of their parole orders – if you want, you can sit and read a magazine while they do work sheets.

Now, I have a problem with this, as a lot of these “problem” kids would much rather come hang out with the super cool YTC staff than stay in class and do stupid old things like math and spelling, so they’ve basically been given a free pass from school. They’re encouraged to take a walk or something if they’re starting to feel upset and they’re going to act out, which is a good idea, but that means that if they don’t really feel like doing what you ask them to, they say “I’m going to see Mr. B” and they take off until they’ve “calmed down” and decide to come back into the classroom, no questions asked. (Usually in time for art or computers, would you believe.) Now that I’ve seen the other side, I’m even more sceptical; one boy was there serving an in-school suspension, so he did some fill-in-the-blanks sheets, some look-at-the-pictures-and-see-what’s-different sheets, kicked a ball around and watched a movie with a bowl of popcorn. Now, what possible motivation could he have for not getting another suspension? Another boy comes every afternoon because he doesn’t get along with his teacher and can’t focus in class – except that he didn’t even finish a single work sheet. I think that not finishing his class work, while at least hearing classroom things happening around him, must be better than not finishing his connect-the-dots sheets, while hearing adult conversation, soccer games and movies around him. Call me crazy. There are a few kids who come in because they’re out of control – I’ve sent a few over myself and have certainly been grateful to be left with a semi-functioning class as a result – so it can be a good thing. I just don’t think that tip-toeing around the kids and trying so hard to keep them “engaged with school” that you never ask them to actually do anything remotely school-based is what the centre is there for.

Meanwhile, Ronny, the guy I was working with, gets together with a few teachers and they play indoor soccer at lunch against teams of students. The kids come running as soon as the bell rings and get into teams of five: whoever scores stays on and a new team swaps with the ones who were scored on. Ronny was telling me about when he played semi-professional soccer and when I expressed interest in the sport (sub-category: watching, not playing), he suggested I come and play, since they can never get five teachers and they always have students play with them. Ultimately, I couldn’t think of a good enough excuse and so there I was, at 11:00 in the morning, in the sweltering auditorium crammed full of excited, sweaty children, wearing my white teacher pants and sandals, playing indoor bloody soccer. Do you know how badly the kids want to play on the teacher team? I was robbing some 11-year-old of his dream, and why? To what end? I can’t play soccer. I mean, I really can’t play. I harbour this fantasy that I could have really been something if I’d kept up with it when I was younger, since I was involved with the all-star team or something like that – except that I distinctly remember them calling my house and asking for “Kathryn McCutcheon,” obviously confusing me with teammate (and talented soccer player) Michelle McCutcheon and then being stuck with me until I finally gave up in grade eight. I was very definitely never destined to star on the soccer field, but there I was in my fake Birkenstocks – seventeen soccerless years later, no less – hoping to hell I didn’t twist an ankle or accidentally kick a child in the face, and of course nobody ever managed to score against us so I had to stay on and play the entire forty minutes. Did I mention how hot it was? We’re talking the tropics in the middle of the day in summer, in a gym with no air conditioning and lined wall-to-wall with people. Hot. When I was in net I considered sabotaging the game, letting one in so we could switch off with another team, but the defence was too solid and I didn’t have the chance.

When I was called on to make a penalty shot, I decided that this was going to be my moment of glory and all the students on the sidelines would be impressed with my amazing athleticism and how cool I was and they would never misbehave in class again because they’d be so in awe of me and really I was the best soccer player ever and they wanted me not Michelle and it was a crying shame that I’d let this natural talent go undeveloped and it was going to be just like a Disney movie when I got the ball right into the corner of the net and the crowd would cheer and – which is what they call “celebrating prematurely”: the ball went about four metres over the net and my teammates, who said they were just out to have a good time but actually took the game really seriously, were properly disappointed and never gave me another penalty kick. The bell finally, mercifully, rang – Ronny went and changed his shirt, clever fellow, while I was left sitting in my sweat and nursing my heat rash for the rest of the day in the Youth Transition Centre. Hmphf.


Another memorable school day was in the local Catholic school. I noticed at morning assembly that all the teachers were really dressy and formal, where I – having not been informed that there was a special mass that day – was dressed for casual Friday, in jeans and a glorified tank top. Next to the others, I looked like a total slob. Some of the older kids were in charge of part of the assembly and they had a song prepared. As it started, they came directly up to me and said “would you come with us,” so I followed them around the room like an idiot until I realized that they meant “would you come sing with us” and that all the other teachers had already made their way onto the stage. I tried to quietly get into the back but ended up front and centre, between the guy with the microphone and the principal. It turned out to be a song about a holy cross, so I assume it was the school song, and there were – of course – actions. I stood there in my grubby jeans, guessing my way through the song (I tried to just look really earnest and poignant so that even if I was messing up the words and actions, at least they knew my heart was in it) and then we had to stay put for the national anthem, the words to which I don’t really know. I’ve heard it hundreds of times, of course, but when you hear a group of children at school assembly mumble their way through a song, you don’t come out feeling confident about the lyrics. When I get to the part I don’t know, I usually find a student who’s misbehaving and give him or her a disapproving look, or mouth something like “that’s enough,” which makes me look serious and important and covers the fact that I don’t know the anthem. Here, though, I had nowhere to hide. I was centre stage, my voice being picked up by the microphone, the principal (in her silk suit) singing enthusiastically to my right... Lame. (The bigger scandal in the day was actually when, in a moment of exasperation, I said “Jesus Christ!” and my year seven class literally gasped and looked at each other in shock – Catholic school. Oops.)


I have this rodent thing, right? There were some bad experiences from my childhood (like running into the dark kitchen to answer the phone in my bare feet and stepping on a dead mouse) and some things in Guadeloupe, and of course The Great High Park Apartment Mouse Infestation of 2001, the extremity of which caused me to move back home before the end of the school year. I really can’t stomach the thought of mice sharing my living space and I think about them pretty much all the time – oh, the irony of being both terrified of rodents and highly allergic to cats. I’ve been extra jumpy since that kitten-on-the-bed episode in August, a really stressed-out sleeper, and am even more alert to suspicious night sounds than usual. So a few weeks ago, when I heard some rustling in the bathroom – which is an en suite, so we’re talking three metres from my head – I just knew it was a mouse. My panic vibes woke Mark, who said “it’s nothing, it’s just the fan, you’re losing your mind,” but when I threw something at the garbage bin, whence came the rustling, something with a tail scurried out of it. Praying that it would turn out to be a gecko, I sent Mark in to see and he was all “oh, for God’s sake” until he moved the garbage and a DIRTY LITTLE BROWN MOUSE ran out!!! Ha!!! (My triumph was largely overwhelmed by my revulsion and by the Extreme Cleaning Plan I was already forming, since I obviously wouldn’t be sleeping that night anyway.) The mouse, scared poopless, froze by the door, where Mark was trying to find his shoe, and then darted out and will probably never come back in to this house of giants, one screaming and the other trying to kill it. Just in case, though, we’ve set a couple of traps – the piece of bread disappeared but the peanut butter has gone untouched for weeks. I was also thrilled to discover the neighbourhood cat having a big pee in our yard and thus hopefully scaring the mice away from the area altogether (and maybe the cat’s eating them sometimes too?), and Mark now pees in the garden every night to add his own male hormone smells to the mix. I’m back to being able to sleep, though fitfully, but I am no longer able to go quickly into the bathroom without turning on the lights, so Mark put a flashlight on my bedside table so that he wouldn’t have to wake up each time I have to pee.

(Bron suggested I need to do some phobia therapy, starting with looking at pictures of nice rodents, thinking about all the ways in which they’re really neat, then maybe going to pet store and holding one... I see where she’s coming from but am not ready to even consider such a program at present. I am trying to go with her “and if a mouse does run across your bed, so what?” idea – because logically, it’s not really a big deal, right? It’s just that the pit of terror in my stomach isn’t logically inclined.)


So that’s where we’re at. The season has changed – quite suddenly, really: bare trees and brown leaves all over the ground one day, everything bright green the next. Quilt at night, then, all of a sudden, suffocating under a sheet. It’s too hot to even conceive of running before at least 8:00 pm (or after 5:30 am) and the rain has begun in earnest, moldy pillows and all. The strangest part of it for me is still hearing people talk about the Christmas season; the sweatier your back, the closer you are to Santa’s visit. I’ve been really sluggish this past week and am hoping that I’ll be able to adjust to the new weather and still function over the next months, instead of just sitting in front of the fan, eating popsicles and watching Oprah like when I first got here last year. No promises, though.


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Life's A Beach: Chapter 7

Hello hello!

Things have been happening here, let me tell you. I suspect that most of them are had-to-be-there kinds of things – I find that my Absolutely Hilarious stories end up sounding a bit lame in writing – but I’ll try to find the ones that are worth sharing.


I got my visa, which is a relief. I think there’s been general confusion as to what my situation was and what I was waiting for, so: on the working holiday visa, I could only live in Australia for one year, with a maximum of six months working for any one employer – which is why I had to leave the day care, which broke my heart.

In the meantime, having analysed the work situation and agreed that we need to stay longer in Australia than originally anticipated, Mark and I applied for a partner visa – common law is the same as being married for visa purposes. I had been told that it would take six months or longer, so I wouldn’t be able to go back to the day care until at least next year. That also meant that I wouldn’t be able to work in state schools past September 15th, so I started in with the Catholic board and told the state school where I worked all term (with remedial readers) that I was finished – and gave good-bye cards to my students and got roses from my colleagues and basically made a big fat deal out of the whole thing, only to get my partner visa a week later. Ahem.

So now, I’m a resident in Australia, can get medicare, can work wherever I want with no restrictions. Immigration then checks in with us in two years and if they’re satisfied that we’re still a genuine couple and that I’m an okay person to have in their country, the temporary residency rolls into a permanent one.

First things first, of course, I’ve been working at the day care [insert happy sigh here]. It’s been two months, during which babies can grow a lot – lots of them have moved up to the next age group, they’re taller and slimmer, they’re speaking more and developing senses of humour... amazing.

Some funny conversations I’ve had or overheard recently:

Katy: Oh, this air conditioning – I’m actually cold!
Alana: Well, you should get a jumper, like I have.
Katy: Can I borrow yours? Do you think your jumper would fit me?
Alana: No. ‘Cause I’m four.

Jasper [with his drawing]: Can you fold this like a puppy passport? I need one, because my puppy goes everywhere on the airplane.

Hudson: My dad works with Santa. He makes toys but I have to wait a long, long time for them.
Katy: So he has two jobs?
Hudson: Yeah. His work, and.... Santa.

Katy: What’s your treasure map for?
Patrick: Treasure.
Katy: Yes. What kind of treasure?
Patrick: Good stuff.
Katy: Is the treasure at home?
Patrick: There’s no treasure at home – I don’t even have a spade!

[Zara has pulled her shirt down and is breast-feeding a doll.]
Katy: Hey - you’re feeding your baby!
Zara: Yes. This one has milk in it, then the other one is water.

You want to be happy? Work with small children.


Bronwyn decided to take advantage of my living in Australia and took a much-needed semester off of school to come explore this part of the world. Mark and I were both working when her flight came in at 10 am, so I had this elaborate system worked out with keys and instructions and though I felt bad that I wouldn’t be able to pick her up at the airport, I figured that she’d probably appreciate having a quiet house so she could have time to decompress after a long flight and not have to make conversation right away. Mark had some kind of bug that he couldn’t shake, though, and felt so lousy that morning that he called in sick to work – but he was willing to pick Bron up, which we figured would be a nice surprise.

I, in the meantime, was also coming down with something but my contract was such that there was no one to replace me if I didn’t show up and I was stressed out about wasting the little time I had left with my low readers, so I hooked up with my carpool and went to school. This was what is known in some circles as The Wrong Decision, because within minutes of arriving at school, the full flu kicked in and I was so disgustingly sneezy and wretched that I couldn’t go near the kids – I had to call Mark, who was just finding Bron at the airport, and apologetically ask him, with his flu, and Bronwyn, coming off about 30 hours of travelling, to come pick me up in Mareeba, about two hours round-trip through the jungle and the tablelands.

They came, which Bron good-naturedly claimed was an ideal way for her to immediately see some of Cairns, and just after we detoured to show her the golf course kangaroos, something kicked out in the car and we had to find a mechanic. One group was too busy, another guy couldn’t do it... We finally found someone who agreed to fix it up (the car was firing on three cylinders, in case that means anything to any of you) and so we wandered around Mareeba to find lunch while we waited. We sat in a veterans’ club, listening to the whir of the pokies behind us, all three of us fighting the dead exhaustion of either jet lag, flu symptoms or the anti-flu drugs that stop the sneezing but make you too tired to function. Whoop!

Back out into the sticky, hot afternoon, over to the patched-up car and back down the range towards home, at exactly the same time as my carpool was leaving school – with me slouching down in my seat in case anyone saw me and thought I’d just been playing hooky to hang out with my friend.

Welcome to Cairns, Bronwyn! Aren’t you glad we saved you from having to take a cab?!

After that things got back on track, though, and we did all sorts of fun activities.
Bron loves the water as much as I do so I finally had a river buddy – it’s always too cold for Mark. We’ve had dim-sum (which they call “yum-cha” here – what’s that all about?), gone on the skyrail (in the rain), visited animal parks, hiked and sweated, gone to see movies, experienced the Cairns festival, parade and all (I almost got run over by the Pride float), eaten lots of delicious food (if you see Bronwyn, ask her to make you her chocolate ginger cake and change your life) and watched a lot of X-Factor. Bronwyn’s in Sydney right now, having driven down the coast from Brisbane, and she’ll be back up with us before she leaves in November. The problem with having a friend from home is that now I realize how much is missing for me in Cairns and have spiralled into an existential crisis, surely not unconnected to my imminent 30th birthday; I’ll have to make the most of Brony when she comes back, for as long as I have her. How many board game nights can I impose on her without threatening our friendship?


When we moved in, we had a lovely couple living across from us, Jay and Neil. (The bread man moved in when they left.) They are extremely fit – Neil looks like a fitness club poster – and are both police officers, or at least were both police officers but they hate it so much that they’re shifting into other fields. Neil works at a fitness club and is in the army reserves, Jay runs every day... Nice to chat with them in the pool but maybe not so much our perfect hiking friends, you know?

One day Mark noticed that Neil had tennis rackets in the car; we mentioned it to them and they were relieved, since Neil gets frustrated having to slow down his game to match Jay’s lack of skill, so breaking off into two games would be the best thing for them... Which means that all of a sudden, I was involved in these big tennis plans. To my great relief, it kept not working out – with scheduling problems and the consistently wet weather – but a few weeks ago it was on and unavoidable and I was dreaming of humiliation and defeat on the tennis court on a nightly basis.

Let me tell you, though, it turns out I’m not so bad. Or, at least, when Jay said she really can’t play tennis, she wasn’t being modest. I think I may have some kind of genetic thing – I was trying to channel my racquet-sport-champion dad – and while I am no Venus Williams, I held my own. On the other hand, while Mark and Neil were grunting and sweating and pulling muscles all over the place, Jay and I were volleying the ball around and chatting, like a more physical version of sitting down for coffee. We talked about the good restaurants we’ve found in the city, uni programs, visas, jobs, my mom’s visit... Tennis is fun! And we did play a doubles game for the last ten minutes, though Jay is so all over the place that it was mostly just trying to keep the ball in play. I managed to place a couple of excellent balls and briefly decided that I should really take lessons and become a tennis player, but when they all laughed at the “funny” “joke” I had just made, I realized that being able to approximately hold my own in a friendly doubles game does not a secretly gifted tennis player make. Venus can breathe easy for now.

The big new thing is that I’ve started running. Well, jogging. Bronwyn and I followed the couch-to-5k program (courtesy of Jill – thanks!), which starts with a little bit of running and lots of walking and then slowly phases out the walking – I’m at 25 minutes of running now and while it’s not like I love it, per se, it feels pretty good and I’m really proud of the fact that it’s happening at all. Bron’s been keeping up while she travels; she was happy to do some running somewhere less humid and miserable than Cairns, which means that if I just manage to keep it up, some day, somewhere else, I could actually really enjoy it. I only go after the sun’s gone down, the problem being that I swallow about one bug per three minutes, but now that I’ve hooked up one of those cool kid arm bands for my i-pod, at least I have something to listen to other than the bats flying terrifyingly over my head. Which brings me to:


Once, Bronwyn and I passed under a tree just as a bat took off and flew low over our heads. The sound – how can I describe the sound? You’ll only have ever heard it in a movie, like a pterodactyl or one of those scary flying death things in Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, because in normal life, nothing is big enough to make such a huge wing flap. Except in Australia. They are like flying doom and the two of us practically jumped out of our skin – good inspiration to get you running, though; with one of those monsters flapping above my head, I’d run for days.

There’s a strange bird called a frog-mouth that we see in the wildlife parks, and a few weeks ago there was one in the tree beside our balcony! It stayed there for hours and even turned its head for a picture, which was a treat.

Less of a treat is the big huntsman spider living on the ceiling directly above my pillow. We’ve tried to shoo it away somewhere, and it acts like it’s going along with the plan, but then it comes back. Why? I guess there are lots of mosquitoes, hovering around sucking the life out of me, but how is the spider going to get them without a web, which it can’t build on a flat ceiling? Does it just shimmy down on a string and hang there, above my sleeping head, killing bugs? Ew.

Meanwhile, The Mystery of the Fourth Fish continues. We have a kind of zen pond at the entrance to the flat, very chic, and when we installed a real-live swamp lily pad in it, we got some goldfish to add a little pizzazz. There were already some fish in there, little black guppy-type things and one big one, but we generally ignored them – and vice versa. So I bought these four goldfish and they loved it in there, swimming around like crazy, except that the big fish kept bullying them and beating them to the food. And then one day, only three goldfish. I figured Bully ate the fourth one, Mark thought it must trapped in the filter or something, but we cleaned it out and there was nothing... Ooh, did I ever hate Bully and curse his name to the stars. I watched very carefully to make sure he left the others alone; I was ready to scoop him out and throw him in the swamp.

Now, though, none of the other fish has disappeared, and Bully has stopped being so aggressive with the food, which makes me guiltily realize that he was just hungry, our having never fed him. (It’s too late to change his name from Bully but I say it apologetically, or with air quotation marks so he knows I’m being ironic.) So what happened to the fourth goldfish? Will we ever know?

Just for your reference, I have included pictures of the “moat” and of the three who remain: Big Red, Jim and Talulah (with the fancy mouth). Bully’s camera-shy and I gave up trying to get him involved.

Now my horror story: it’s the middle of the night, everyone’s sleeping, and a rustling sound wakes me up. I’ve told you that there are no screens on the windows in our house, which is great for air and light and all that, but obviously means that creatures can come in, like centipedes and cane toads. Sleeping with the door closed is out of the question, though, as we will suffocate and die.

The breeze tends to blow in and rustle the blinds, which make a clicking noise that we hear pretty constantly. This time, though, the clicking is a lot more persistent and focused. I’m sleep-confused and struggling to make sense of things but I’m absolutely sure there’s something in the room, rustling around in the corner – it’s hard to hear anything past my own terrified heartbeat, but maybe there’s a bell somewhere? And scratching sounds? I’m sitting there, paralyzed, squinting into the dark, when all of a sudden a creature jumps up on the bed.

Now, imagine that you have just woken up into your own recurring nightmare and you’re confused and it’s dark and you’re convinced that a rat has jumped onto your bed to chew off your face – can you imagine what kind of sound you might make? I’ll tell you: a gut-wrenching scream that is so deep and loud and full of terror, I mean proper terror, that your throat will hurt for two days. And now imagine that you’re Mark, sleeping peacefully, and you are woken by such a sound – he thought that I was being murdered. I couldn’t explain what was going on – couldn’t speak – but he saw the shadow of something running off down the hall so while I shut myself into the shower, huddled and shaking, he went to slay my dragon.

Um, it was a kitten. Which explains the bell, the curious rustling and the light pounce onto the bed – in retrospect, of course. He came back with it in his arms – poor thing all freaked out by my screaming – and we had a good laugh about it. Well, he did – I was still crying and shaking and thought I was going to throw up. I didn’t sleep soundly for a good week; I still wake up with a start about twice a night.

All this to say: if there’s a crisis, you don’t want me around. Turns out I don’t handle fear well.

As for joyful animal experiences, Mark and I did the koala picture thing. It was so quick and professional that I didn’t have time to get all weepy and emotional like last time, but it was just amazing. To hold the koala, you have to lace your fingers together and just stand there, no cuddling or anything; Mark is wonderful and made the sacrifice so that I could actually pat it. So fuzzy – like a teddy bear. Like a beautiful, achingly adorable Yoda teddy bear. I considered applying to work there so that I could become friends with the zoo-keepers and get to hang out with the koalas all the time. I might have to go back and do it again – maybe if I tell them I don’t need a picture, they’ll let me touch it for longer? I want a koala. Really, I want a koala. I don’t know what to do about it – such useless longing.


If I told you I got a bad motorcycle burn on my leg, you’d jump to the obvious conclusion that I was riding with Mark, right? Or at least that I bumped into Mark’s bike? Well, you’d be wrong. I dropped Bron off at a car rental place (she went and did the waterfall circuit that Mark and I have been trying to do all year! Dagnabbit!) and then was early for my carpool to work, so I went to have a hot chocolate at McDonald’s. I can only assume that the gods were punishing me for frequenting such an establishment, even if only for a time-killing breakfast drink, because when I reached into the back of the car to get my bag, my outstretched leg came into sizzling contact with the just-parked-and-still-extremely-hot motorcycle behind me and a maroon oval was seared into my upper calf.

Now, luckily, my mom had just recently sent out a “home remedies” e-mail, including one about toothpaste on a burn, and my brother, enraged as only a health care professional can be, had replied that one must never, under any circumstances, put anything other than ice or cold water on a burn, lest the heat should be trapped and burrow deeper into the skin, creating a second- or third-degree burn where there was none. And if that’s true for sunburns, I could only imagine how true it would have to be for a big, fat, painful burn like this. I got ice from the McDonald’s, put my cold water bottle on it during the drive to school, and kept ice baggies on it all day, to the fascination of my students. It blistered, it looked really gross for a while – now, a few weeks later, and probably thanks to Michael’s sage advice, it’s fine. No real reason to tell you about it, other than because I like to think that you’re out there somewhere feeling a bit sorry for me. I’ve included a picture – Mark told me not to but what does he know?! I didn’t put in the gross one, or the one where you can see my hairy, chubby leg, but I wanted you to be impressed with what a big burn it was!


There’s a video store nearby that I never really went to because we have one right across the street. Getting a blood test for my immigration stuff, though, I happened to drive by it and noticed a sign about $1 movies. Wow, I thought, you can get old weekly movies for a dollar. Great.

But no – it’s ever y movie! Every movie in the store is one dollar on a Tuesday! And then there are three for nine deals and two new releases for seven and whatever - deals, deals, deals. I’ve been watching five or six movies a week – yesterday I got NINE movies, which I may or may not get through.

One dollar! Amazing! And they have Twizzlers there, too!


Well, it’s raining. Still.

Okay – that’s it!


Monday, August 9, 2010

Life's A Beach: Chapter 6

Did you know that my mom was here? Well, she was. By now, a number of you have certainly heard how relieved she was that it’s actually pretty nice around here, with friendly people and beautiful things to see – even if it’s a kajillion miles, hours and dollars away from home – and that things are going well for Mark and me. The only problem now is that I’m really sad that she’s gone.

Mom’s flight came into Sydney, so I flew down to meet her there. Great idea, except that I have the immune system of – well, I can’t think of a clever comparison, so suffice it to say that my immune system is crap. If I’m slightly tired, slightly cold or slightly undernourished, bam: sick. I was fighting something off the week before my flight – including chugging echinacea, zinc, vitamin C and all things orange-based – and seemed to be holding tight until a bad sleep, a super early morning flight and a freezing cold arrival in Sydney knocked me on my ass. (It’s the winter season here, which means going from a toasty 28 degrees in Cairns to only 10 and damp in Sydney; cold is a relative thing and it doesn’t matter whether or not I should have been cold, I just was.) Mom, of course, was coming off about 25 hours of travelling, so even with her considerably more robust constitution she was fighting against the odds.

The weather was beautifully sunny and crisp our first day and we had a great day of walking around the city, eating dim-sum, touring the ever-amazing Opera House and just having lots of good talking time, but by that evening we were both chilled and snuffly. The next morning Mom’s friend Bron picked us up to drive out into the country, where we stayed with a group of Bron’s friends and their kids for three days in a beautiful, rustic eco-lodge. Delightful people, great company, lovely kids, yummy food – too bad I was sick as a dog, sleeping it off under four blankets. I finally started to get better, just in time for Mom to succumb and crawl into bed herself... I think we really left a good impression on Bron’s friends: the two Canadians who can’t handle a bit of chill in the air. (Any of you who have heard me blow my nose can imagine how nice it must have been to have me around. So much for the peace and quiet of a mountain retreat...)

On the way home I found myself getting super car sick and wondered if I truly was the single worst person to travel with – making Mom sit in the back so that I could stare queasily straight ahead – but it turns out that there was a major oil leak and I must have been inhaling the fumes. When the car broke down and we got towed to the nearest town, we thought it was going to be thousands of dollars in parts, plus trying to organize emergency transportation back to Sydney for our flight out the next morning. Our auto angels must have been looking out for us, though, as Bron had done exactly the right thing by immediately pulling over when the oil light went on so that after patching the hole with some kind of magic putty, the friendly, drinky, blokey-bloke mechanic sent us on our way. Crisis averted.

Mom and I spent the night in the completely unglamorous Formule 1 by the airport, the easier to hop onto our flight to Townsville the next morning, where we met Mark’s family and had a really lovely week-end, including a beautiful day of walking and eating on Magnetic Island and the traditional Collins brunch at Sizzlers, where the whole lot of them – otherwise quite reasonable eaters – gorge themselves on all manner of tasty, fried foods. Mom hit it off smashingly with Mark’s parents (and the sister she met) and got to have a tour of my Townsville life, including the restaurant where I worked and the various neighbourhoods I lived in. All very exciting, at least if you’re a person’s mother.

Our first week back in Cairns I had a grade one contract up in Mareeba, so Mom had some days to just wander around the neighbourhood and then came into school with me to meet the kids and get a sense of what it’s like to teach here, God help her. (Probably much more satisfying than a day in a state school was going to the golf course with Mark to see the herd of kangaroos that lives there and just kind of hangs around while people tee off, leaning on their sides and watching golf. Very weird.) Mom also came for my last shift at my beloved day care, to meet the wonderful staff and delicious children that I’ve been talking about. Did I have a big cry? Yes, yes I did. Do I feel better about things now that a few weeks have passed? No, no I do not. Am I seriously considering a career in day care? I’m hoping that having my own kids at some point will be enough, but it might turn out that hanging out with three-year-olds is my calling. Who knew? (I knew.)

We did all the touristy stuff, including SkyRail, beaches, village markets and animal parks. I even suddenly got into necklaces – amazing! First cooking, now jewellery! (I haven’t managed to actually wear any yet because I still don’t really like them, but owning them is a first step, I think.) And of course we cooed over all the adorable baby things, imagining our new little grandbaby/niece/nephew wearing one-piece kangaroo pyjamas while cuddling a stuffed kookaburra. Everything’s better when there’s a new baby involved, isn’t it? (For those of you who didn’t know yet, Michael and Lindsay are having a baby! Obviously there are no words to describe the love bursting at the seams of my long-distance heart.)

Some things were the way I had described - like the ever-lovely Botanical Gardens, pictured here - and others were completely off the mark, usually because of the weather. The beautiful, lush, green drive up the coast to Port Douglas was pretty dry and yellow; the rushing cascades and waterfalls were mostly just trickles. The beach was crazy, too: usually, the reef blocks the waves and the water is like glass, slightly undulating in the breeze but otherwise completely calm. Here, it was so windy and choppy that the life guard actually took his board out to surf in the waves! Unprecedented!

Unfortunately, the crappy weather sometimes ruined our plans. Mark and I have been planning to do the waterfall circuit since we got here last year; we even bought a tent that we haven’t used once. So we booked some rooms in a lodge and planned this whole tour of Paronella Park and the waterfall circuit to do with Mom, but only got as far as the first stop, Babinda Boulders, where it was so rainy, cold and completely grey that we couldn’t imagine slogging through a whole miserable week-end of it and decided to just go back home and watch the rest of “Glee.” The waterfall circuit: foiled again!

(Mark & I took Mom to our beloved Stoney Creek, which was still peaceful, beautiful and perfect, but which doesn't seem that great in photos. But don't Mark & Honey look cute?!)

One thing that was even better this time was the animal place where we fed kangaroos and saw a cassowary up-close (rather than hiding in its corner like last time.) My desperate favourite is the koala, of course, and just staring at it is usually enough, but this time we watched the photo session, where people stand there and the guy places the koala in their arms for a picture. I don’t know what it is about them, but I find them overwhelming and was completely in tears – like, making people uncomfortable kind of tears – just from being so near to them and thinking about how close to extinction they are. They don’t like being in people’s arms so I feel morally torn between not wanting to make them unhappy and really wanting to hold a koala before I die. You know? I think next time I’ll have to just go for it – unless the crazy crying really freaks koalas out; then I’ll just stick to patting the snake.

On Mom’s last day here we walked up to the neighbourhood field where a bunch of wallabies live. Stupidly, we brought the rest of our kangaroo food from the animal place. Why would we think this was a good idea? I suspected the wallabies themselves would never let us get close enough to reach the food, since they’re quick to hop away, and that was fine. But when I scattered the pellets in their general direction, one of the [very large] horses that grazes with them made a beeline towards me, apparently hungry for some roo snacks. That’s fine, nice horsey, say hello, eat the pellets, off you go. Except that he got really weird: even after he’d eaten everything I had for him to eat, he wouldn’t let me leave. When I’d try to walk away, he’d walk around me and kind of block me in. Strange behaviour, borderline scary – I’m not a horse person and don’t know how to be authoritative around them – but I figured I’d just wait until he was satisfied that there was really nothing more for him in our encounter and when he left it alone, I’d leave. Except that another horse then came towards us and blocked me in on the other side and I seriously wondered if I was being ambushed and if my mother’s last day in Cairns would have her witnessing me getting kicked in the head by some horse in a field. In the end, I threw the plastic container as far away from me as I could, the horses went after it and Mom and I high-tailed it out of there. Moral of the story: don’t go wandering up to large animals you don’t know with roo pellets in your pocket.

That night, it was Mom’s turn to be scared of the local fauna. I was stupid enough to point out to her the giant cricket that was sitting on the curtain rod above the door – again, why would I do that? She hates cockroaches and big flying things, so why didn’t I just leave it? Obviously, once she’d seen it there was no way she was going to fall asleep until it was out of the house or dead. (There’s a rat living in the tree beside our balcony and my full-body terror at the thought of it coming into the house is severe enough to keep me awake in night panics; I pass no judgment on Mom and her giant-cricket phobia.) I tried shooing it out with a broom but that just made it flap around me in a panic – now, I’m not fussed about crickets but nobody wants one of these things flying into their face. As the chance of my quietly directing it out of the house became increasingly remote, I started trying to just whack it to death – which wasn’t so nice for our neighbours, or for Mark, trying to sleep just under where I was smashing the floor with a broom at eight-second intervals. The more I missed, the more panicky the cricket, the more frantic my mother and the more hysterically giggly I became. Shoving furniture around, trying to corner it... It was a total farce but eventually worked, with the poor thing ending up crunched under Mom’s sturdy sneaker (wielded by me, obviously.) Moral of the story: if you see a sausage-sized cricket sitting quietly and peacefully in your house just before bed time, don’t tell your mother.

(On the other hand, another cricket – a little one this time – was trapped in the house yesterday and there was no way we could sleep until we found it (tucked into my guitar case!) and tossed it outside. How can something so small make such an outrageously big noise?)

The next morning, a tearful farewell at the airport. That part never gets any better and I don’t wish living far from your family on anyone who loves their family. Thanks for a lovely visit, Mom, and here’s hoping that the next one isn’t such a bloody long plane ride away.

Otherwise, Mark and I have officially celebrated our two-year anniversary. Huzzah! We went for dinner and a magic show, anticipating corny fun but finding instead the single most entertaining magic show in our collective history. Sam Powers: our new household hero.

We also finally went up to do some camping at the famously beautiful Cape Tribulation – using the tent that we bought in December, you remember – only to discover that private camp sites are ridiculously expensive and fill up quickly, public ones require pre-booking (or on-the-spot booking, except when their computer systems are down, like when we called), lovely little lodges are booked months in advance, there’s nothing to do in the general area other than go to the beach, which is itself just a big, long beach and not really worth driving all the way up there for.... Right. So we turned around and drove home. Cape Trib: check!

Major household news is that Mark, looking to be more independent at work and not have to rely on a carpool (and end up missing classes or even exams when the carpool can’t be bothered leaving on time), has bought a motorcycle, which I named "The Concubine" for obvious reasons. It’s blue.

In the meantime, my bloody Yaris lease has finally been taken over. Phew.

Our inconsiderate neighbours suddenly disappeared one day and a very nice father and daughter have moved in instead. She goes to the neighbourhood school and I see her there sometimes when I’m teaching, so I have to be careful about what I say and do around the house... Other than that, it’s a relief to have quiet, clean, normal people sharing the neighbourhood. No more blasting music or other confrontational behaviour will be needed, I dare say.

The neighbour we would like to have stay, on the other hand, is moving. Johnny drives a bread truck down to Townsville a few times a week and always brings us left-over loaves of delicious multi-grain bread. The job is almost over anyway, so it probably wouldn’t have lasted, but it’s going to be hard to go back to actually buying loaves of bread like every other loser in the grocery store after such an extended period of having it delivered for free to our door every week. Life is hard, you know? Really.

I have a contract for three days a week doing “intervention,” which is basically remedial work with kids whose reading levels are so low that I could just sit and cry at the thought of what their futures will hold. We’re talking about non-ESL ten-year-olds who don’t know the alphabet. I don’t know how much I can really help in the six weeks until my visa restrictions kick in and I have to stop working at state schools, but I guess anything is better than nothing. Other than that, I’m doing relief work and trying to figure out what to do in September when I have to find a new employer. Mark is busy and stressed with a full-time course load on top of his full-time job, but this is the worst month and then it will be a little more relaxed. And, of course, there’s an MBA at the end of the tunnel, and he’s in the process of looking at follow-up job possibilities. Perth was thrown on the table this evening – look out! Who knows what will happen next.

Stay tuned to find out!