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.