On grief and being newly grandparent-less

Grief is weird. Thankfully I had very little exposure to it until my mid-20s, but it’s always managed to surprise. Its reality hits you at the most unexpected moments, like going to call the person, only to realise you’d need a very powerful phone to reach them, or hearing a song, or just hearing an offhand remark that reminds you of the person you’ve lost.

For me this week, only when I was in the plane, flying away, did (perhaps ironically) the gravity of the situation hit me.

Not when I first received the news. Not when I told people at work. Not when I called my girlfriend to give her the news. Not while booking the tickets north, boarding the plane or disembarking on a muggy Gold Coast evening. Not even during the viewing at the funeral home, delivering the eulogy or watching the curtains close on the coffin.

It was only as the plane back south was ascending, and I caught a glance at the neat squares of sugarcane in the Tweed Valley down below, that it hit me, and I burst into tears.

Those canefields had always been a signal of finality, though not as emphatically as they were that day. I usually saw them from ground level, through the window of a passing car. They told me, as we drove south on the Pacific Highway through the valley and back to Coffs Harbour, that the holiday was over, that we were heading back to reality for at least another school term.

They didn’t have the opposite message on the way up, though. That honour, of announcing that we’d reached our destination and that the holiday had begun, went to the view from the top of Sexton Hill, as the Pacific Highway wound through the houses nestled north of the Tweed River and made its way into the last leg before crossing into Queensland. The view of Surfers Paradise in the distance, and the smaller towers of Coolangatta told me that we were about to turn off and make our way to Nan and Pop’s house.

That was more or less the view from Nan and Pop’s place, as well. Over a hedge populated by buzzing bees and screeching lorikeets, the towers of the southern Gold Coast and the ocean could be seen from the front porch where Pop and I used to sit when I was a kid, he with a beer, me with a glass of Fanta as he told stories about the world.

His and Nan’s house was the definition of summer to me. Even though I grew up only three and a half hours away, in a city that is considered a tourist town and holiday destination in its own right, my grandparents’ house didn’t bring with it any reminders of school, homework or chores that needed to be done back at home.

All of that flashed through my mind as I looked down on those cane fields, and the grief brought along another little present: a feeling of guilt, wondering whether the sadness you feel is because of what you’ve lost, rather than at the passing of another human being. It’s all about your experiences, not theirs, not what they’ve said goodbye to. This feeling of selfishness was commonly brought up in the all-too-familiar panic attacks that come with anxiety, but this one seemed more existential.

Then another feeling came through of gratitude. As I grew up, I started to realise what a privilege it was to have such wonderful grandparents. Many people never get the chance to meet their grandparents; some are too far away to see regularly, others may not want to be seen or may have acted in such a way that their grandchildren do not want to see them.

And there I was, among that group of people who had kind hearted, generous and caring grandparents who also lived within reach. Who’d do everything they could to give you a better chance in the world. And so, every summer I’d journey north to relax, head to the beach, swim in the pool down the road and grumble about the inconvenience of living on NSW daylight saving time while receiving Queensland broadcasting signals on the TV.

Once I moved away from home to Brisbane for university, that house was a much shorter drive down the M1, or two buses and a train away. It was a refuge, albeit one for weekends rather than weeks at a time, in which I could recharge, remove myself from the realities of the world and listen to the stories and knowledge derived from days gone by.

From pre-school, to primary school, to high school, to university and then the jump from city to city for work, that house and my grandparents were a constant in my life and a place where I could step back from the world and relax.

Those days are done now. That generation of my family tree has joined the others. And only now, as the old cliche goes, that it’s gone have I come to appreciate fully the impact it has had on me.

Cue the return of the existential panic and feelings of selfishness again. Because I wasn’t just saying goodbye to my grandfather this week, I was saying goodbye to a time period and a place. Tweed Heads and the southern Gold Coast are likely to become a blur through the window as I pass through on the way to see friends in Brisbane. The place is too filled with memories with my grandparents that every experience, every familiar shop or beach or street feels somehow hollow and empty now.

That includes the fish and chip shop on Terranorra Creek where we would pick up fish and chips. The food’s still good, but without Pop there to wrap the oily paper in a blanket to keep it warm and pop it in the car boot, it doesn’t feel the same.

Coolangatta Beach’s golden sand and clear water is beautiful as ever, but there are too many memories of jumping on a boogie board as Pop watched from the beach, or making our regular trips to McDonalds across the street, followed by a drive up to Point Danger to watch the sun glisten off the ocean and the surfers making the most of the rolling waves.

Even the old house in the hills of Banora Point doesn’t seem the same. The place where I spent countless summers, sat on the porch or in the beergarden out the back, played on the embankment or sprayed its weeds, or sat inside with Nan watching repeats of Inspector Rex.

Pop sold the house a few months ago, when he went into an RSL care home, and so it became just another house on a street in a residential suburb.

The next little while is probably going to suck. But at least at the end of it the memories will remain. Tweed Heads will continue to have visitors, and people living, working and raising families, the one that I know will still be around in my memories. After all, the plane landed safely and life will go on. Grief is weird, but at least this time it should only be temporary.


Dancing in the dark

Tonight I went to a place where the dancing only starts when the disco ball disappears and the lights go out…

THE year is 1998. Careless in the throes of youth, you dance around the lounge room as Saturday morning’s Rage plays the bubblegum pop hits that defined the decade as substantially as grunge.

While your body swings to the Vengaboys, Aqua or the Spice Girls, your parents sneak in with a handheld home video camera, capturing your every move.

The footage lies dormant until the late noughties or early 2010s, when as a special 21st “gift”, it erupts onto the screen in front of dozens of your friends and relatives with the help of the last surviving VCR within a five kilometre radius of the RSL club.

Horror-struck though you may be at your uncoordinated early primary school self singing and jumping around, and that your friends now know your seven-year-old self lacked the sophistication to appreciate the depth of Pink Floyd’s music, deep within you rumbles a strange sense of admiration.

Pictured before you is someone who danced blissfully without care of convention, social expectation or self-consciousness.

Before dancing turned into primary school’s mechanical, militarised march known as the Macarena.

Before you risked cooties to hold the hand of the opposite sex (shock, horror!) in mandatory year 7 ballroom dancing class.

Before you joined those same members of the opposite sex in awkward adolescent experimentation at the Hot House Party or Blue Light Disco.

Before you paid the local pub’s cover charge for the privilege of overpriced booze and grinding on a sticky dancefloor surrounded by thirsty packs of gym junkies as the DJ-cum-barista played the Grease megamix for the second time in a night.

The child of 1998 is almost a source of envy, so governed by others’ expectations has dancing become, at least while sober. But tonight I discovered a place where the spirit of that child can be revived, devoid of social anxiety, romantic pursuit or a terrified urge to run for the bar.

Enter No Lights, No Lycra. Every week, people in their gym gear gather in a near-pitch-black room and freestyle for an hour.

When my friend told me of this place, two thoughts entered my mind.
1. “Of course it’s in West End.”
2. “Wouldn’t that be claustrophobic? What if I hit someone?”

Thankfully, my two worries were alleviated with one solution. As mentioned above, the hall isn’t in complete darkness as you groove away; the main sources of light, apart from the mobile phones of people trying to find the bathrooms, are the exit signs. This means you know you can escape if necessary, and you aren’t in complete darkness. You can’t make out faces, but you can tell if somebody’s getting too close with the dimmed green of the signs.

So, once again, dancing becomes an individual, carefree pursuit. You don’t need to try and look good, there’s no risk of anyone laughing at you, and any thirsty guys are practically wearing a blindfold.

For someone who, when not Peter Garrett dancing before a safe crowd, can get intense shyness and social anxiety/exhaustion, it’s amazing how liberating the absence of light can be. Nobody can see that I resemble a velociraptor jumping on hot coals; I can be me with no consequences.

Plus, pre-teen you would even recognise some of the songs. Vengaboys and Aqua play alongside Justin Timberlake and Skrillex beats that would have accompanied your year 12 formal or university balls.

The extra enthusiasm that comes from dancing without social boundaries means it’s also a great form of exercise, and a hell of a lot cheaper than the gym or yoga.

No Lights, No Lycra events are popping up all over the country. While I’m disappointed I’ve only discovered the idea in my second last week in Brisbane, it turns out there’s another one in Canberra. Perhaps I’ll see you there. Actually, I probably won’t.

Maths-metal and streaking: Hottest 100 vote lobbying’s shaky history

Taylor Swift could make it into this year's Triple J Hottest 100. Photo by David Shankbone.

Taylor Swift could make it into this year’s Triple J Hottest 100. Photo by David Shankbone.

THIS month, many of my friends, relatives, complete strangers and I have been asked to make a very important decision; one that could change the course of history. There’s also a state election on.

I speak, of course, of the decision whether or not to follow the social media push to force Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” into Triple J’s Hottest 100 of 2014. Anathema to those purists whose radio dial (or scanner, since it isn’t 1989 anymore) remains superglued to 107.7FM or the various other frequencies across the country, the grassroots “write-in” vote has nevertheless gained traction and could see the mainstream pop song inch its way into the 21st year of “the world’s biggest music democracy”.

I won’t be pulling a Swifty with the others, mainly because I don’t like the song. But I can’t understand the anger it’s generated amongst some of Triple J’s diehard, parochial fanbase. There’s a subsection of Hottest 100 followers to whom the list is sacred, but who will be unhappy regardless of the outcome. They’ll moan that the 2014 poll is the “worst ever” and long for the day Ultimo is overrun and the music democracy is bloodily overthrown to establish a benevolent hipster music junta, free of the bourgeois influence of “songs a majority of the sheeple listeners like”. Read more of this post

I didn’t choose the evil bird collector life

Disgruntled Ocean Bird with the Founding Father of the collection, The Evil Water Fowl.

Disgruntled Ocean Bird with the Founding Father of the collection, The Evil Water Fowl.

THE collection started with a simple request: find me something tacky for less than $2 at a Paddington op shop.

It was 2011 and I was so very, very sheltered when it came to the world of avian ornamentals. So when my friend returned back to college with what has since been dubbed “The Evil Water Fowl”, I had no idea of the impact the wooden sculpture would have on my life, or at least on my bedroom surfaces.

Presumably crafted in the finest woodwork shed Satan has yet devised, the bird, with beak open in a presumed frozen shriek, twisted head and large, hate-filled eyes, was not tasteful, nor was it tasteless. It existed on its own plane beyond the taste spectrum, boggling even the smartest of minds and forcing out the utterance, “Why?” Read more of this post

A very Australian response to an unusual crime

YESTERDAY was not the day “we changed forever”; the perpetrator of the hideous crime doesn’t deserve to affect the country in such a major way.

Far from a day of change, yesterday was a day when the best and worst aspects of our national character were on show.

For the most part, compassion, decency, community spirit and mateship flourished during and after the awful events in Martin Place, trumping isolated pockets of xenophobia and hate-breeding fear.

Even as I type, Sydneysiders, tourists and some public figures have silently queued to place flowers at the police line in respect for the innocent man and woman killed.

This solemn act of mourning and solidarity replaced the voyeurism and vanity yesterday, when people were taking smiling selfies with the besieged café in the background. At least the media broadcasting the scenes were informing the public; the selfie vultures just showed the logical extreme of social media look-at-me-ism.

Similarly, tasteless tweets about how much better the city looked without cars filtered through amidst the expressions of concern, grief and sorrow.

Synagogues, mosques and churches alike opened their doors last night to give those with faith a communal space in which to comfort one another and pray for the victims still trapped inside the café.

The evidence that has come out so far about the gunman, who I won’t name, is that he was a delusional person acting alone, despite his aspirations to join militant organisations.

An Islamic State plot this was not, but it may as well have been considering the Daily Telegraph’s appalling treatment of the situation yesterday afternoon.

The whole point of Islamic State, and other Islamist terrorists, is to terrorise, and labelling the actions of this lone madman as part of a “death cult” plot, with no evidence whatsoever, played right into his hands.

Thankfully, most media outlets complied with NSW Police requests to either remove or simply not report on the demands of the gunman, so as not to publicise his reason for committing this terrible crime and give it legitimacy.

The coverage seemed to improve the longer the siege carried on; earlier (often wildly inaccurate) “speculation” gave way to repetition of what was known, while clarifying what wasn’t.

But fear-mongering did not extend to select news outlets: there were also the bigots both in person and online who encouraged violence against innocent Muslims and mass gatherings in Lakemba (a Sydney suburb with a high Muslim population), as well as those who spread hoax Facebook posts about a mysterious Islamic man warning someone not to visit the CBD during holiday celebrations at the end of the year.

These preachers of hatred and fear, marginalising and encouraging abuse of people not because of their actions, but their faith, are doing the work of Islamists for them.

The more marginalised from the mainstream young people feel, the more likely they are to be radicalised to become militant by the murderous fringe dwellers.

From the outset, Australia’s Grand Mufti and countless Muslims condemned this man’s actions and said he was not acting in their name, nor in the true name of their faith. An Islamic educator also offered his services unsolicited to police negotiators.

In response to reports of harassment against Muslims in public, the wider Australian social media community got onboard with the #illridewithyou hashtag, volunteering to stand in multi-faith unison against those who would do harm, either physical or psychological, to innocents.

Australia’s been through tragedy before, and it will go through tragedy again. But yesterday’s story does not belong to the gunman; he doesn’t deserve to be the catalyst for “the day we changed forever”.

This week’s story belongs to the courageous hostages who died to help others, the amazing professionalism of the police, emergency services and political leaders, and to a national community who, thanks to empathy and compassion, united during a dark chapter of our history that could easily have torn us apart.

Is it possible to be a GTA-playing feminist?

THIS article does not answer the headline’s question, because I honestly don’t know. Ever since the announcement Target, and now Kmart, have stopped selling Grand Theft Auto V after an online petition alleged the game promoted sexual violence against women, it’s been a dilemma running through my mind.

I consider myself a feminist, but I’ve also spent countless hours in the streets, waterways and airspace of Los Santos and San Andreas. Now, looking at what appears to be a new theatre in the culture war the gaming community is battling over its treatment of women, I feel the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Read more of this post

Why are phone hacking victims and nude photo hacking victims treated so differently?

WHEN ‘journalists’ were caught hacking phones for stories, there was public outrage. When hackers stole the account details of 77 million PlayStation users, there was widespread anger at the perpetrators and serious questions for Sony about its security systems. When hackers stole sexually explicit images of female celebrities there was… victim-blaming.

Three cases of hacking, and it’s only the crime involving boobs where the victims are blamed. Like the proverbial deer caught in the, ahem, headlights, the public are fixated on the celebrities, rather than the hackers, the tech company and the so-called fans who let them down. Read more of this post