Saturday, May 29, 2010

Life's a Beach: Chapter Five

Let’s tell it like it is: I tend towards the chubbier end of the body spectrum. I don’t actually eat fast food or greasy snacks, but am most definitely one of those unlucky bastards who can gain weight just by imagining how good some Lindt chocolate would taste right now – and, let’s be frank, I don’t always stop at just imagining. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will always have an exaggerated appreciation of sweet, yummy foods, but I try not to overdo it; now that they’ve started selling my beloved Milka Swiss chocolate at K-Mart and the grocery store, I need all the help I can get to stay on track. Obvious solution: get on the bike.

Not so obvious, though; Cairns throws a lot of curve balls at you when you’re trying to convince yourself that bike is better than car. For the most part, I’ve overcome whatever challenges have come my way: bloody hot? Bring a water bottle. Don’t want tan lines? Wear a tube top. Too sweaty when you get there? Pack a shower kit and change of clothes. Shower pack too big? Get a basket. Raining too much? Take some plastic bags. Highway too aggressive? Take the back paths. Horrifying dead things all over the back paths? Um... don’t ever get on your bike again.

Want to hear about it? Wednesday I rode out to do some grocery shopping (and to buy new tweezers, much to my dismay – nothing worse than getting used to new tweezers) and I took the back paths, which I had recently discovered will get me all the way to the shopping centre and thus spare me having to deal with freeway traffic whizzing past. Within five minutes I passed my first dead kangaroo, lying half over the bike path – sad, but freshly enough dead that there wasn’t any smell. Flies, but whatever. I felt a bit bummed out, a little shaken, but was ready to move on. Five minutes later, kangaroo number two: definitely not fresh, hugely smelly (which explained the desperate shutting of windows whenever we drove by that spot on the highway), covered in dark fuzz and pretty much melted into the pavement. Yuck, right? Who wants to see a kangaroo like that?

On the way back, I decided to go the long way so that I wouldn’t have to ride by these awful sites/sights (/smells!) again. The long way is not only long but also very hilly, keeping in mind that I was carrying heavy groceries and riding under the one o’clock tropical sun. All to avoid some dead kangaroos. And what did I get for my trouble? Rats! Two of them! Giant, horrible, bloated, dead bush rats – which are roughly the size of beavers – rotting by the side of the road. I figured that people were exaggerating when they talked about how hideous these things are, but I was wrong, my friends. (And when I say “people,” I mean “the people I work with,” since these repulsive beasts apparently hang out in the kiddie bike shed and their pee made Todd hospital sick – needless to say, I’m never going near the kiddie bike shed again.) I think you’re all pretty clear by now on how I feel about rodents in general and rats in particular, so you can imagine my state by the time I got home and I think I deserve a big pat on the back for even leaving the house again, not to mention getting back on the bloody bike.

Which I did yesterday, riding back from dropping the car off at the mechanic’s. Not about to go the long way, rats and all, so I figured I could handle the kangaroos, since at least this time I'd be prepared. Just hold my breath, right? Except that from this side, I could see the thing’s petrified, leathery face, a horrifying death mask that would fit right into pretty much any nightmare I can imagine. I was so overwhelmed that I had to stop my bike and vomit – literally, vomit – on the side of the path. (Which means that whoever goes by next will have to deal with my vomit and the nightmare roo... Sorry, mate.) I obviously decided that I would skip back over to the highway rather than riding past the second carcass, but before I had a chance to do that, something caught my eye and I looked up to see one of those monster bats I hate so much hanging over my head, having been electrified on, and trapped in, the wires, facing down toward me with its wings spread out behind it.

I mean, seriously? Two dead kangaroos, two dead giant rats, one dead giant bat. What the fark is going on? Is this some kind of biblical shit? A test? Am I a modern-day Job? Would you stay in this country?

Guess how well I’ve been sleeping these past few days.

Luckily I have the weekly pre-natal class to keep me feeling positive about life. And good thing I’m there, since I’m the only person in the room who isn’t completely freaked out, other than the midwife teaching the class. The pregnant women are getting increasingly stressed out as they imagine the things they see in those pictures actually happening to them in a few months, while their partners just sit there in a trance, slightly green, looking really uncomfortable every time a picture has blood in it. Or at least, they did when they were there; this week was the first of however many State of Origin footie games – where everyone plays for their home state team – so half of the men didn’t show up for the class and three more left early to be home in time for the game. When I got home Mark and I played a game called “Guess How Katy Would Feel If Mark Chose Rugby Over A Pre-Natal Class.” It was great fun.

Meanwhile, in one of the rare moments when I was not weeping over some birth picture or other, I realized that it’s time for me to start up a new project. You already know about Mark’s and my Know More Stuff project, and of course there’s the lifelong Eat Less Chocolate project and the increasingly futile Stop Picking At Your Bloody Eyebrows project, both in full swing. But here’s one that I’ve only recently put my finger on: the If You Don’t Know What You’re Talking About, Just Shut Up project, otherwise known as project Stop And Think.

The key to IYDKWYTA,JSU was when Jo the midwife was talking about different hormones that go through women’s bodies and either help or hinder the labour process. There’s Oxytocin, the happy hormone, there are endorphins – all helping loosen up and relax so that gravity can do its job. And then there’s a bad one, since it makes us tense up and can be counter-productive during labour. Does anybody know this hormone? It makes us anxious... It starts with “a”... What I should have done was either decide that I didn’t know what she was after and shut up, or at least give myself a few seconds to figure out that the only “a” hormone I can think of is adrenaline, which makes sense because a rush of that would definitely un-relax you. What I chose to do was to just play word association - “a” and a frowny-face drawing on the board - and shout “anxiety!” Of course – everyone’s favourite hormone, anxiety.

You know? Just shut up. Stop and think for a second. I thought back to last week when Mark and I were watching a show about the U.S.S.R. and they said something about Lenin’s successor as Russian president. I could have just let them finish their sentence, right? Isn’t that what people do, just shut up and listen? Instead, I shouted out: Putin! As in, Vladimir. The no-shirt-in-a-canoe guy. If I stopped for even a second, would I really think that Putin came after Lenin? No, I would not. If I stopped for a few seconds, would I have sorted through my brain fuzz and pulled out “Stalin”? Yes, I would. Very probably. Or at least maybe. But instead, through basic word association (Russia... president...) and this apparent need to show off, it was “Putin!”

These are only two of many examples that are coming back to me in increasingly humiliating waves. Bronwyn said that I’m a smarty-pants, which I had never realized about myself but can no longer deny in the face of such damning evidence. Though that’s really the lesser problem; at least if I called out something even vaguely accurate, I could be smug and self-satisfied, a smart smarty-pants. My thing is to just call out the first word I think of, which is pretty much always completely off the mark. An idiot smarty-pants.

“The largest planet in the solar system,” – Pluto! – “Jupiter is 2.5 times larger than all the other planets combined.” Ah yes, Jupiter. Of course.

“The bone in the upper arm, called” – femur! The femur! – “the humerus, runs from the shoulder to the elbow.” Oh, you said the upper arm. The humerus, obviously.

So it’s officially on: If You Don’t Know What You’re Talking About, Just Shut Up. We’ll see how I go.

Then there’s something that I’ve been thinking about, with all this talk about war (Know More Stuff! It’s working!), and that started on Anzac Day. (That’s the Australia/New Zealand Army Corps and it’s like a second Remembrance Day, since they do that one too.)

*Incidentally, I didn’t realize it was coming up and had been planning to make the delicious Anzac cookies for which I had just acquired a recipe, only to discover that there was not a package of coconut or rolled oats to be found anywhere in the Greater Cairns Area – aha! Anzac Day is upon us! (I think it’s really nice that people actually do make Anzac cookies on Anzac Day.)

There was a sunrise service at the beach and Mark suggested we hop on our bikes and go. (Of course, it’s a whole different story when the alarm clock actually goes off at 5:20 am and it’s drizzling and dark outside... I kicked up a real fuss until we took the car, couldn’t find parking and pretty much had to walk the whole way anyway, and of course it stopped raining so I was a big fat whiner for nothing.) Even before we got close enough to hear anything, I was moved by how many people had turned up. I was pretty weepy through “In Flanders Fields,” struggled through the raw and scratchily-played Last Post and completely lost it when some old men in uniforms laid the first wreath. I thought that having a blatantly Jesus-based prayer was a bit weird but none of my business, but I have a real bone to pick with whoever thought it would be a good idea to play a jungle-dance version of the National Anthem. I mean, if there’s ever a time for the solemn, anthemic version of the anthem, it’s at a war memorial. This one made me want to grab my Zumba rhythm sticks and get down – not a very dignified end to the service.

Now here’s what I’ve been thinking about. The send-off was a parade up and down the esplanade: soldiers, veterans, marines, school kids, cadets... Wait a second, school kids? What are they doing there? What are we paying them our respect for, exactly? But then, I guess they’re what the whole thing is about, right? People fight in wars because they want things to be better for their children. When I thought about it that way, the children in the parade represented everything hopeful and bright about the world, rather than the little monsters who make my life as a relief teacher miserable. But then that train of thought got me to thinking: is that why kids are the way they are now? Is bad behaviour and a complete lack of respect the result of growing up without war? Maybe our generations are just spoiled and have never had to think about our place in the world, not to mention making sacrifices for it. Maybe a little bit of hardship would do today’s kids some good. Even if that’s a completely simplified way of looking at it – there are obviously generational shifts and new ideas in education and parenting and so on – couldn’t that be part of what’s going on? Am I a horrible person for thinking like that? Should I just hand over my teaching license? Please share your thoughts.

Then there’s my own personal war against the next-door neighbours. They have loud, late nights on a regular basis. They watch crappy machine-gun movies that keep me awake and give me panic attacks. They smoke on the balcony – even though they have awful, hacking coughs that would make any sane person pay any amount of money for any product to help them quit – and it comes into our house. They get obsessed with a certain song and play it on repeat for literally hours at a time – right now it’s k.d. Lang’s “Hallelujah,” which I didn’t like in the first place and can’t stand now that I’ve heard it forty times.

But the last straw was the other day when they got some new speakers. I assume that’s what happened because they kept blasting music for a few seconds, then turning it down, then back up, etc. I figured that was the deal with new speakers and I could wait it out, but then they settled on a volume (earsplitting) and genre (saxophone jazz from hell) and after a few songs, deciding that letting the air out of their tires would be passive-aggressive, I chose to be more direct: I blasted Maria Callas singing “O Mio Babbino Caro,” letting it play through to the end even though they had long since turned theirs off. It was actually quite thrilling – this is rough and tough North Queensland, don’t forget, and I wondered if I was going to get punched in the face next time I left the house – but nothing’s come of it and so far the volume has stayed somewhere closer to a reasonable level. Since they seem to understand this kind of communication, I’m trying to think of something that I could blow into their house next time they smoke into ours... Again, please share your thoughts.

I will leave you with two recent examples of four-year-old logic that I like so much:

1. Ellie has let Shaquanna wear her bracelet for the afternoon.
“Don’t forget to get it back when your mom comes to pick you up.”
“I won’t. One time, I woke up and I remembered that I had swimming.”

2. Ellie again, playing with little plastic jumping frogs, three of which are broken. So how many are still good? Ellie counts.
“Seven. And my brother’s seven, so there you go!”

Later skaters.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Life's a Beach, Chapter Four

I recently discovered that very close friends and family members have no idea what’s going on in my life – like, no idea – and it turns out that it’s been three months since I last wrote! Ay, caramba! The problem with that kind of lapse is that so many stories build up that the prospect of sitting down to write an update becomes overwhelming and I keep putting it off.

So. I’ve decided to forget about trying for any kind of linear progression or entertainment value and just give you some news. Hopefully this will be a short one and then in a few days I might feel like doing another short one and I’ll work myself out of the habit of writing a novella each time – especially considering how many of you are reading on some hand-sized device or other; I can imagine how miserable it would be to get an epic e-mail on one of those.

Here’s what’s happening in my life right now:


Yes, I’ve been doing some supply teaching, but let me tell you, it isn’t the best. The schools around here are pretty rough and I’m doing a lot of “be careful what you wish for” thinking. What if I got a full-time teaching job? How miserable would I be? How important is quality of life compared to regular income? Now, obviously, some of the things that make supply teaching so completely crap would be better with a regular class, but most of the problems would be the same – like the kid who reached up and snapped off a ceiling fan – and then I’d be stuck. Food for thought.

Luckily – and really, I think I was so lucky to find this particular job at this particular location – most of my working hours are in a day care down the street that fills me with such joy and squishy love that Mark’s been checking my pill pack to make sure I don’t just throw caution to the wind and go through with making babies of my own. (I guess it’s fair that he should at least be consulted in these matters...) After the stress of classroom management and the complete lack of having-a-good-time-with-kids that school provides – other than one music teacher gig where I just played the guitar with them all day – it’s so nice to show up at the day care and have all this one-on-one time with bright, funny, beautiful children.

At school, if a kid has a big long story to tell you about where he or she went fishing, you can only listen to so much before you have to get back on track with the lesson or before one of the psychopathic kids in the class breaks or throws something and you have to cut the fishing story off and deal with it. At day care, you just listen until the story’s finished. Then the child, having been properly listened to, can wander off and find something else to do and you can go hear someone else’s hilarious story: everybody wins.

I love the curiosity that kids have, as they figure out how things work. Endless how-come discussions are generated simply by my wearing a different colour shirt than usual or heading over to return a library book on my break. If ever I mention that my mom’s birthday is in January too, they freak out at the idea that I, ancient as I am, have a mommy just like they do. They ask me if I have boobies, if I brush my teeth, if I’ll come to their house and watch Transformers. Also, little kids are just really excited about pretty much everything. If the new sand in the sand pit had them all losing their minds, you can imagine how they reacted to the Easter Bunny passing through the centre and leaving paw prints along the path. I get to play make-believe all day – like yesterday with Maddy, the smartest little 2-year-old (her mom’s Canadian – I’m just saying) who found out about how birds keep their eggs warm and spent the rest of the day roosting. I covered for her when she went in for nap time, but she didn’t want me to do it for too long, since my bottom is so much bigger than hers and she didn’t want her little chicks to overheat... See? Even the hurtful things that kids say are good fun. (Like Musou, who complains about my prickly legs and now checks them before he’ll sit on my lap for a story.)

Then, of course, there’s all the time spent cuddling them and patting them to sleep – try spending hours at a time with a little ten-month-old angel snuggling into your neck and see if your inner clock doesn’t go into overdrive! I went to a pre-natal class with a pregnant friend of mine and it just tipped me over the edge. (Poor Mark: how about we wait until we have a home first, maybe a long-term job...)


I’m here on a working holiday visa, which means that after six months I have to change employers and after twelve I have to leave the country. (Or apply for a six-month visitor visa and not be allowed to work.) This was the best option when I was looking to hurry up and get over here, since Mark taking the Cairns job was all a bit last-minute. Now, though, his company’s willing to subsidize the MBA courses that he’s finishing up, which means that he’ll owe them one or two years in exchange – which is great because that’s a work guarantee, not so great because all of a sudden we’re staying in Australia for longer than anticipated. (The best birth-control argument I can think of.)

So in order for me to a) be able to stay, b) be able to get a proper job and not have to do short-term and supply teaching, and c) be able to come back to Oz down the road if that turns out to be what happens with Mark’s work, I am in the final stages of preparing my Partner Visa application, based on Mark’s and my de facto relationship. It’s long and painful – and I had to sort out a Canadian passport renewal application at the same time, so I’m basically on a first-name basis with the JPs around here at this point – and of course, ridiculously expensive and non-refundable, so we’re hoping that it’s accepted. I’ll keep you posted.

*Incidentally, I’ve put down a whackload of names of people who know us in case the immigration department wants further proof than we’ve provided, so if they call or e-mail you, just tell them how great we are – please and thank you!

The sad thing is going to be in July, when I definitely won’t have the new visa yet but based on the old one, will have to stop working at the day care – I suspect I’ll just go in and volunteer, since it makes me so happy to be there. In the meantime, I’ll see if I can get on the supply lists for the Catholic and private school boards, and otherwise will have to waitress or something while I wait for it all to get sorted. Bloody immigration! Bloody international relationship!


Meanwhile, if we do stay on, it will probably be in either Brisbane or Gold Coast (an hour further South), where Honeywell’s head office and next project are, respectively. When Mark went down for a work thing in Brisbane, I found a cheap flight and went with him, to take full advantage of having a free hotel and car (whoop!) and to get a feel for the place and hopefully open my heart to the possibility of living there.

You know what? It’s really nice. A really nice city, good size and with a curvy river through it that means the best way to get around is on the public transportation ferry, easy breezy.
Lots of green and flowered walkways and garden areas, and of course the climate is great most of the time. The real estate options for us, though, are looking pretty sad – especially after the gold mine we found here in Trinity Beach. Having been spoiled with this beautiful, furnished, beach-accessible, garden-heavy and pool-side house, anything we could afford in Brisbane would be like moving into a cheap, stained van. In the basement. Smelling like pee.

Gold Coast, on the other hand, is super touristy – that’s where Surfer’s Paradise and all those beaches are – so there are people who come through for short-term rentals like in Cairns and there are a lot of similar properties available, including furnished ones. I don’t know what the teaching scene is like down there but hopefully I’d find a job, and Mark would finally be finished his uni work and would actually have some free time outside of work, so all we’d have to do is live in our airy, resort-style flat and learn to surf. Could be a lot worse, right?


For the record, though, surfing isn’t going to happen any time soon, as I don’t like big waves and can’t stand to have salt water in my throat. Yet another way in which I’m a wuss. Mark’s friends Jason and Mia picked me up from the airport when I landed in Brisbane and we all drove down to Gold Coast, which was fun because they’re so nice to be around, but holy crap was I not a fan of the beach! In Cairns, it’s peaceful water, rocking you like a lullaby, because the reef calms it all down. In Gold Coast, just standing upright in the water takes amazing core strength, between the giant waves and heavy undertow. The lifeguard kept whistling at me and telling me to stay in the flags – I’m trying! I’m using every muscle in my body and still am getting pushed off to the side – get off my back! The water is beautifully clear and a the perfect temperature, but it’s so stressful that if we live there I’ll have to pay for a pool membership to get some swimming time in, since I’m certainly not going to be beachy.

We had dinner with Jason and Mia at the Sushi Train, thinking that it would be so great to finally have some good sushi again, being in a capital city that presumably has a considerable Asian population, but it was nothing special. Though very expensive. Hmm. (It being “nothing special” didn’t stop us from pigging out something fierce, though, which makes me question our approach to food in general...)

We're trying to look nice but we feel like death - check out how many train dishes we went through... (But look at Jason's and Mia's pile - we weren't the only ones!)

The highlight of the trip for me would have to be when Mark was convinced that the planetarium we’d passed at the bottom of a big drive to the look-out was named Sir Thomas something Brisbane, rather than just Sir Thomas Brisbane, as I said. He was so sure of himself that he drove all the way back down and into the planetarium, only to discover – of course – that I was right. I was kind of a big jerk about it, but only for a few minutes – we stayed friends. Plus, my in-car version of the “you were wrong, LOSER!” dance was such a hit that it can only be a good memory for everyone involved.


We’ve had lots of people come through since this year, which was sometimes fun but mostly stressful because the weather was so consistently awful and we couldn’t do anything about it. One guest extended his trip in the hope that the bad weather would pass and ended up staying almost two weeks with nothing to show for it except some rainy jungle pictures. We did manage a trip to the Rainforest Dome above the casino, which turns out to be a waste of time except for the up-close (through glass) crocodile experience with their huge croc, Goliath.

It started as a joke, but you wouldn't believe how intimidating and all-out freaky it is to stare into this thing's eyes.

We also went to cascades that were somewhat fast and flowing before and that had turned into huge, swirling torrents, the water coming up to cover the stairs to the swimming holes – but we still swam, after finding some out-of-the-way corners, and we were sure to hold on tight. The pictures don’t do it justice – you’ll have to come to Cairns in the heaviest rainy season and see for yourselves.

(Some of our rainy nights were spent playing Trivial Pursuit, which I thought would be the worst but was actually good fun, and which has inspired Mark’s and my project to Know More Stuff, with daily fact-finding and -sharing duties. So far we’ve covered the Mayans/Incas/Aztecs, the Cold War, leopards, bees, Guatemala and so much more! We’s getting smart!)

Mark’s dad was here for a few days, too. As well as just being a great visit, he helped Mark fix the toilet (hooray for dads!) and told us that the droppings that we figured were from possums were actually from cane toads, which prompted Mark to head straight out and buy a little bamboo barrier for the door, not too high but how high can they jump? We’ve only ever seen one since, a little baby one that was so scared at our sudden presence that it peed all over the floor. Hard to hate them, isn’t it, the poor little things? It’s not their fault they were introduced and ruined everything – blame the scientists, not the toads!

We had a young, beautiful Swiss couch surfer who made me reconsider the wisdom of having young, beautiful Swiss people around when you’re not feeling so hot these days in the first place and now you’re all wearing bathing suits. I need to make some pale and dumpy friends.


The advantage of crappy weather is that if you decide that you’re tired of waiting for the rain to stop and you go out for a hike, you’ll be the only ones there. Stoney Creek: my new favourite place in Cairns.

It was a big drop down to the waterfall below - very exciting...

And even better for two!

One of the trails in our hiking book was unfortunately a no-go, as we literally could not figure out where we were supposed to follow – each time we thought we were onto what could be the trail, we’d hit a dead end. I didn’t want to give up and we got into increasingly precarious positions along the side of a waterfall – I felt like the biggest jerk ever when Mark, the one who doesn’t like to swim in cold water, fell in and had to hike around in soggy shorts the rest of the day. There were also tricky parts with the mud, our shoes sinking in and making me think of Atreyu and his horse in The Neverending Story – don’t let the sadness get you, Mark, it’s going to pull us down! – but generally it was such a beautiful and people-less place to be that I can’t wait to go back. Mark wouldn't swim, but I braved the ice water and it was worth it.

One of the hikes in our book was labelled “moderate,” so we figured we’d do it in the morning before meeting friends for a big afternoon one. Well, we almost died. There were signs all over the place about how crazy steep the climb was, so at least the council seems to agree with us that it is a VERY DIFFICULT hike, but the book said it was 40 minutes round-trip and had nice views. There was one look-out and you couldn’t see anything from it, there were climbs so excessively steep that they’d set up ropes for pulling yourself up – thank god there was a creek at the bottom, which we jumped into in our underwear, so desperate were we for any kind of relief. Well, I jumped in - Mark splashed around a little.

We’ve also been exploring the Atherton Tablelands, which are beautiful – no story to tell, other than our shock at how completely freezing cold it was, to the point of my not being able to sit and finish my sandwich at a picnic table, but running back to the car instead. The area is known for its waterfall circuit, but we want to camp and we’ll wait for nicer weather, so we went to the lakes, the amazing fig trees, some falls and lots of green, rolling hills. It’s a good spot.

How about we give it a rest, hey? So much for my short update, but since it’s been three months, it only seems fair... I still have more on my list, so hopefully I’ll be more on top of things from here on in. For now, fingers crossed for the visa (please send good vibes), I’m still stuck with the Yaris in my mom’s garage so if you know ANYONE who’s even SLIGHTLY interested in taking over a lease, PLEASE send them my way, and I hope May 2010 is treating you well.