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I don’t mean to brag but I can stop time.  Seriously, I can.  And I’m happy to share with you how I do it.  Extra carefully I select a bundle of CDs; extra carefully I select songs off these CDs.  Then I rip the songs onto my computer (since I forked out hard-earned cash for the CDs I reckon I can do whatever I like with the songs).  Then I get the order perfect, then I burn away.  Finally I lie down on the couch and close my eyes and listen and listen.

Yes, at my age – midlife milestone minus one year exactly – I make mix CDs.

I’ve always done it.  It’s one of the few constants in my life (Blundstone boots is the other).  I remember being twelve years old and buying my first tape-to-tape cassette deck.  At last I could put my most favouritest songs on one tape!  I worked on it for hours.  And I couldn’t wait to play it back.  But when I did, something was terribly wrong.  It seemed that just shoving good songs onto a tape didn’t work.  It was as if I’d tried making a three-course meal out of cup cakes.

Thankfully I’ve discovered that this game has rules.  Nick Hornby wrote about them in his novel High Fidelity.  He reckoned a mix tape had to ‘start with a corker, to hold the attention’, that you can’t have white music and black music together ‘unless the white music sounds like black music’, and that you can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side.

He’s right.  But I have some rules of my own, and they’re specific to the CD format, because, let’s be clear, CDs are very different to tapes.  You have to start with three upbeat songs, and these must be followed with two slower songs.  Sad songs must be buried midway through the second half.  If you have 20 songs in total, song 10 must be mellow and short and to the point – don’t ask me why, it’s just the way it is.

If the collection is for the car then the majority of it has to be singable, because sitting next to me, most likely, will be He Who Loves To Sing.  A great mix CD should also have a theme; it can’t simply be a grab-bag of ‘good stuff’ (as I learnt all those years ago).  Recently I did one using only mid-90s singles.  Before that I did one using songs by unknown Australian bands; I called it Australia to get up Baz Luhrmann’s nose.

But what does it all mean?  Hornby says that putting together a mix tape is like writing a letter.  For me, it’s a journal entry.  This is who you’ve been: Morrissey-loving miserablist; grunge junky; four-to-the-floor techno-freak.  It’s also about confirming where you are now, and where you’re going.  Mix CDs are like maps: they tell you about terrain.

And I can’t live without them.  It’s highly likely that even as an eighty year old with no teeth and Swiss cheese for brains, I’ll still be making mix CDs (or in whatever new-fangled format they’ve developed by then).

Because I’ll still need to know who I am.

And I’ll still like stopping time.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, 13 October 2007)

Last month, with Christmas building up on the horizon like storm clouds, I came home to discover that where my letterbox had been for years was a hole; and leading away from the hole was a trail of dirt – it may as well have been blood.  My humble brown-metal letterbox had been stolen, possibly murdered.

That night, I lay in bed and made myself breathe slowly, deeply.  But just as I started falling asleep, a question detonated in my head.  Had I not only lost my letterbox but actual mail too?

Mail to me, you see, is like gold bullion.  After months, often years, of working on a writing project, a short story say, putting it aside, then working on it some more, there comes a time when it must be sent away.  It’s like flinging a pigeon into the air.  With any luck it’ll come home in the form of a letter saying ‘we want to publish you’.  But how could this happen when I no longer had a letterbox?

The next morning, I started my writing session by typing out a note.  Dear Postie, some drunk bastard [the culprit had to be drunk otherwise the world no longer made sense] has stolen my letterbox.  I’ll try knocking up a new one over the weekend.  But in the meantime, if I have any mail, could I humbly ask you to leave one of those cheery red calling cards at my front door so I can collect my mail from the post office? Thanks heaps. I stuck the note to a piece of cardboard.  I stuck the cardboard to a tomato stake.  I stuck the stake into Ground Zero.

Work colleagues said I looked like I’d been in a car accident.  I told them what had happened.  Knowing me to be a bit of an anti-handyman, they lovingly gave me some advice – about football-field-sized hardware stores, about the difference between concrete and cement, about the pros and cons of various letterbox styles.  Privately I mourned the publication acceptance letters that may have gone astray forever.

That evening, I rode home slowly via the shops – I’d drown my sorrows in pizza.

Then I turned into my driveway.  But what’s this?

Something was lying beside the hole, beside the sign.  I leapt off my treadly and had a close look.  I picked it up, I cradled it in my arms, I almost gave it mouth-to-mouth.  Yes, my beloved letterbox was back.  It even had mail – not acceptance letters (how I wish I could report otherwise), just bills.  But handwritten on a bill was this: Dear Nigel, I found your letterbox up the end of Marsden Street, Postie Warren.

Marsden Street was such a long way away.

The next day, I dug out the hole, hammered in my letterbox, and secured it with the quick-set cement I’d bought from a football-field-sized hardware store.  Then a friendly old neighbour from across the street came over.  He said, ‘It was the funniest sight, the postie carrying your letterbox on the back of his bike.  My grandkids stood at the window, saying, Quick Grandpa, look!  Mate, you’re a lucky man.’

‘Yes,’ I said, smiling at my neighbour and then looking up to a cloudless soon-to-be-summer sky, ‘I’m a lucky man.’

Happy Christmas, Postie Warren.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, December 15 2007)

There’s something outside my study window.  It doesn’t have sixteen eyes or antennae for ears or hands in the shape of claws.  It’s not growling or pacing back and forwards.  But it’s there.  And it’s watching me.

Don’t panic, I tell myself.  Just focus.

It’s red and green and grey but only small, perhaps no bigger than a king-sized bed.  It’s luminescent, all of it.  A sprawling red rose by the gate, purple irises looking regal against the wall.  Celestial Violets that have finished their winter run, lavenders about to light up.  Everlasting Daisies claiming the last of the spare ground.  In the middle an old metal table, on it a white-orange cactus in a terracotta pot.  Off to one side, covered in an autumn’s worth of leaves, an old metal chair that’s never sat on.

Yes, what’s outside my window is a secret garden.

I’m meant to be able to get in there via the gate or around the side of the house, but the gate is permanently locked and the side of the house is so weed-infested that you’d have to use a machete to get in.  Whilst I can’t remember the last time I went into my secret garden, I know The Old Lady of the House frequents the place – she’s formed a path through the weeds so she can patrol the perimeter, or bury bones.  Sometimes I’ve spotted Cat the Ripper slinking his way through the gate, no doubt hoping to sink his fangs into a Soldier Bird or Silver Eye.

I really do have a real live secret garden.  How good is that?

As a boy I loved Burnett’s strange, dark novel about such things.  There was something about a secret garden that had healing powers.  And there was something about those children: Mary Lennox, precociously desperate to escape the mansion; Colin Craven stuck in bed with his bung legs; and the bucolic, servile Dickon.

I think about the three of them at night, lighting their fire and chanting magic spells.  Maybe one night I should brave The Old Lady’s path and go into my secret garden.  Hell, maybe I could get a fire roaring on the pavers (although perhaps it’d be more responsible to do it in the Webber).  I could even start chanting.  Caveat emptor!  Caveat emptor!  I’d need something better than that.  Carpe dium!  Carpe dium!  No, that wouldn’t work either.

I could just rattle off some gobbly-gook:  I call on you, oh Maradonna Lily of Secret Gardens, I wish…

Exactly what is it that I wish for?

I don’t know the answer to that question – it’s too big and I’m too adult.  All I know is that, in contrast to the half-dead garden Mary Lennox stumbled upon all those years ago, my secret garden is beautiful.  Beautiful despite the drought, despite a hose or a trowel or a pair of secateurs not going anywhere near it.  All those plants I’d put in and then forgotten.  And no doubt they’ve forgotten about me.  It’s a sobering thought but we humans can be so unnecessary sometimes.

Maybe I don’t fear what’s on the other side of my study window at all.

Maybe I fear what’s inside this room.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, November 3 2007)

Arvo Part: extraordinary

There’s a mug I love.  I found it on my first day of my first real job, in the office kitchen, and I’ve had it ever since.  On it is a forlorn-looking cow that has become stuck trying to jump over a half-moon.  And there are some words: ‘Nothing is ever simple’.  I didn’t choose the mug because of the cow and its caption.  I chose it because it’s white inside, which is so important to us coffee-drinking types.  Over the years, however, I’ve dwelled on the mug’s message and now, reaching the infamously clarifying middle years, I’ve decided that it is wrong – things are, in fact, always simple.

The best music is simple music.  Take Arvo Part’s Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten: this five-minute miracle starts with three clangs of a bell and proceeds with a series of cascading notes that gather into a protracted expression of heartache.  Part wrote it because he mourned the loss of Britten, his hero.  It may sound as if anyone could come up with such a simple piece of music, but the composer made so many choices, choices about excluding things.  This is the genius of simplicity.  I love Arvo.

The best technology is simple technology.  Last year my washing machine gave up the ghost.  After months of handwashing, resulting in a bung spine and crumpled clothes that made me look like a hobo, I walked into a white-goods store, the sort that promises the best deals in the galaxy.  To the nearest salesperson I said, ‘I need a new washing machine and it must be the simplest available.’  I was taken past all sorts of whiz-bang devices, including a washing machine-cum-dryer; now that’s absurd – it’s like making a heater that’s also a fridge.  The salesperson pointed to a humble unit tucked away in a corner.  It had just two dials: one for whites or coloureds, and one for on and off.  I bought it then and there, and am now in love.  Please don’t tell the mug (or Arvo Part).

Actually, my love is even more divided: I have a Polaroid camera on the side.  How beautiful it is!  Load up, press and click, and out they come!  It’s not the instant gratification that’s the pleasure.  Indeed, the speed at which the images appear only serves to emphasise how hard it is to take a great Polaroid photograph.  It’s the simplicity: there are no software-interface issues or memory constraints.  And it’s tough – you can treat it rough and it just keeps on fulfilling its happy little promise.

No doubt one day, perhaps in a moment of tiredness, I’ll drop my ever faithful but ultimately misguided cow-mug and it’ll smash on the floor.  Or maybe I’ll leave it in the kitchen only for someone else to decide it has no owner, just like I did all those years ago, and it’ll disappear.  I’ll try not to cry, I will, because the best philosophy is a simple philosophy: things come together, things fall apart – do we need to know any more about life than this?

Yes, the cow is wrong, things are simple.

At least, it’s best when they’re allowed to be.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, September 8 2007)

There is somewhere he goes, a secret somewhere.  A village high on a mountain, an extinct volcano.  A village so tiny it doesn’t have shops.  Decades ago there were tearooms that sold just tea and apple cider, the cake cabinets empty but for blow flies – alive in summer, dead in winter.  The village had a post-office, too, where his parents would collect the cottage keys.  The shop and the post-office didn’t last forever.  But the mountain has.

Up there, his days would alternate.

One day he’d be with his mother.  Somehow she’d wrangle invitations to visit grand sandstone mansions, those buildings so different from the humble weatherboard place they rented.  The mansions looked as if they’d been teleported from the other side of the world.  Together they’d explore the sprawling gardens that grew in the rich, volcanic soil: perfect lawns, banks of azaleas and rhododendrons, bulbs in spring; all of it dripping and drooping when the late-afternoon mist rolled in.

The next day he’d be with his father, trekking into the blue wilderness, exploring ancient places where decades later botanists would discover an ancient tree that had somehow survived for longer than he could comprehend.  Together they’d drop into freezing canyons.  Hoping snakes would leave them be, they’d clamber up to rocky plateaus that were covered in stiff, prickly heath.

On the third day he’d be alone.  He’d walk to Wynne’s Rocks, officially the greatest lookout in the world, and he’d fast-forward ten, twenty, thirty years to see how life might become.  It was out at Wynne’s, with just eighteen birthdays notched into his belt, that he promised to visit the mountain every year.

And he’s stuck to that promise.

He visits often – he makes the quickest of trips.

He even visits when he can’t sleep.  When he needs to remind himself of being a boy and a big decision was choosing between climbing one of the skyscraper-sized pine trees or hunting for extinct dinosaurs.  To be reminded of being a teenager and having a mate from school in the adjacent bed and knowing it was done – he’d finally offered his mate some words, three words, three syllables.  To be reminded of wild, wild Australia and those bits of imported England.  And being in between.

Sometimes, however, he has nightmares: shopping malls smothering village streets; old mansions (and a certain cottage) demolished to make way for gaudy, two-storey weekenders owned by Sydney stock brokers; a rabid bushfire that’s come to claim the whole bloody lot of it.

Visiting right now, he’s reminded of one of his favourite books (with one of his favourite titles).  No, not George’s My Side of the Mountain but Relph’s Place and Placelessness.  ‘A deep relationship with places is as necessary and perhaps as unavoidable as close relationships with people; without such relationships human existence, while possible, is bereft of much of its significance.’  How good is that!

Yes, there is somewhere he goes, a secret somewhere.

He’d promised to visit every year and he does, in fact he visits all the time – it may be a five-hour drive from where he now lives but he can be there in a second.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, August 11 2007)

Robert Frost

Two weeks ago, on the advice of a dead poet, I rode a different route to work.  I’d barely made it around the corner when a paper sign sticky-taped to a tree caught my attention: MISSING FERRET, SAD KIDS.  I rode on but did the neighbourly thing, keeping my eyes peeled.  Of course, the closer to the office I became, the more I thought about less noble concerns: would lunch again be a quick shot of tuna, or would there be time to sit in the park and dream of being a pigeon?

But I couldn’t shake that sign from my head.

I don’t have children – there’s not a paternal bone in my body – but I do share my humble abode with others.  Firstly, there’s the Old Lady of the House.  She’s black and she’s smart.  She’d do the crossword if she could (and then eat the newspaper).  She’d bake pumpkin scones (and then bury them).  But if you’re thinking of breaking in, here’s a warning: the Old Lady will tear off your leg.

So, feeling for the kids and their beloved, I dutifully scanned the neighbourhood.  For a week.  And found nothing.  But then one afternoon, at the end of the street…

Also at my place, in contrast to the Old Lady, is the Murderer.  Sometimes, after another big day of killing (he’s immune to the necklace of bells), he dines on his Seafood Supreme and says, Thanks for being mortgaged up to your eyeballs but I’d like a house on the posh side of town where there are more trees, and more birds.  And what would the Murderer do if you were to break in?  The expensive stuff’s all yours, he’d declare, but touch my food and I’ll eat your face.

…I got off my bike and crouched down into the gutter.  Yes, here it was – brown and soft.  And so very still.  The ferret.  It had managed a 200-metre dash before being skittled (by a car, I am sure, not by Cat the Ripper, who’d never leave a carcass alone).  But could I knock on a certain door and make the worst announcement ever?  No I couldn’t.

Two days later, I returned home to find a young girl and her little brother distributing leaflets.  When they made their way up the street, I went to the letterbox.  Here was a simple photocopied image of a child – the little brother – clutching the ferret as if he’d never, ever let it go.  And beneath it, this: HELP US.

I had to do it.

I ran after them.  ‘You’re looking for your pet, yeah?’ I said.  They nodded.  ‘I’m so sorry but I may have some bad news.’  The girl stared as if I was a hunchback.  I told them what I’d found; I pointed to where I’d found it.  The boy glanced at his sister.  Then they sprinted off as if every second mattered.

Back inside, I poured myself a wine and sat on the couch, the Murderer on one side, purring sweetly because he knew that at least of this crime he was innocent, and the Old Lady of the House on the other, her greying head heavy in my lap.  Together we watched the news.  Somehow suicide bombings no longer seemed important.

This, apparently, is the road not taken.

Bloody poets.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, June 30, 2007)

Sadly not me

In eighteen months time he will turn forty, he will hit that milestone, if, that is, something else doesn’t hit him first.  Yes, he will become middle aged, although surely he’s middle aged already.  If he doesn’t shave, he has grey whiskers on his chin; if he doesn’t shave his head, he has grey hair above his ears.  He swims and walks and rides his bike to work but still his paunch remains, in fact it seems to be getting bigger even though he can swim 1.5kms in a row, which is more than he could do as a child or a teenager or a much younger man.

No longer does he hunger for burgers, soft drinks and doughnuts.  He wants salads; he licks his lips at the thought of rocket leaves.  He goes to bed early, indeed he looks forward to being between the sheets at 8:30pm and reading for an hour, longer if his eyes allow.  He reads more now than ever before in his life: novels, Booker Prize-winners.  He even reads poetry.  He likes ending the day with a poem in his head – a cheeky literary tipple!

He has started to imagine where he’ll be when he’s sixty, seventy, eighty years old.  Will he be in a retirement village, those school camps for people at the wrong end of their lives?  Will he be fit and well (perhaps he might still be able to swim 1.5kms, maybe even more)?  Or will he not remember who’s important to him, who he is himself, what he’s done?  Will he look upon himself as a stranger?

Yes, all this is middle aged.  But what of the rest of him?

There is no opera in his large music collection, very little classical (except a Mozart for Meditation CD he bought because work stress had got the better of him; the music, he has to admit, is quite interesting, too much so for meditation).  Every CD he buys – and he buys many, at least one a week – is contemporary rock or electronica.  He buys them at a small independent music store in the city, a place that is a hang out (do people still ‘hang out’?) for kids with trousers down around their chopstick thighs.  A guilty pleasure is reading rock-music magazines; he even reads articles about bands he doesn’t like.  Part of him still wants to be a rock star: he wants to be interviewed about his new band, his new album, his new direction.  As a child he’d dreamt of having these things, and now, all these decades later, he still does so.

On Friday nights, after a week of full-on work (do people still say ‘full-on’?), his body weary from back-to-back meetings, from too much riding and walking and swimming, he might go past a bar packed with hot, young, cashed-up things ready to embark on a wild, narcotic weekend.  And he’ll want to be there.  He’ll want to be sinking beers, scotches, anything, everything.  He’ll want to be dangerous too.  But he peddles on, heads home, knowing there is someone waiting for him.  Because these days being with someone is much better than being with something illegal.

It’s true, in eighteen months time he will turn forty.

And like a ferry pulling away from the shore, he has begun viewing life from a distance.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, May 26, 2007)

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