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.

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Story Highlights – June 14 to 20

Stories

Four years’ jail for Red Shop robber

16/06/2015: A man found guilty of robbing Alexandra Hills’ Red Shop last year has been sentenced to four years’ imprisonment.

Pensioner charged with stalking

15/06/2015: An Ormiston man in his 70s has been charged with stalking after allegedly harassing a woman for almost eight years.

Hunt on for sneaky duo

15/06/2015: A distress call from a Cleveland restaurant owner has prompted a city-wide police search for opportunistic thieves.

Queensland’s Pacific Motorway: a user’s guide

QUEENSLANDERS have a bad driving reputation, especially in the southern states.

The New South Welsh, apparently forgetting the homicidal nature that underpins Sydney’s roads, chortle when they see a car with Queensland registration doing something silly on the highway.

The reputation probably came about because the first road most southerners are flung onto upon crossing the border is the Pacific Motorway; Queensland’s jewel dual carriageway stretching from Tweed Heads to the heart of Brisbane, less than 100km away.

While it would be the envy of any major metropolis, South East Queensland’s premier motorway, at its widest reaching eight through lanes in total, nevertheless becomes a frustrating experience due to its patrons.
Commuting between the capital and the Gold Coast is a bewildering thing; one that can lead to road rage, dangerous behaviour and even death.

To make it easier to understand the bewildering behaviour on this broad stretch of bitumen, here is my guide to each of the four lanes that make up this highway to hell.

The far right (War): It doesn’t matter who you are or what speed you’re travelling, you are fall into one of two categories in this lane: the tailgater or the tailgated. Cruising at 112km/h in a 110km/h zone while overtaking someone in the next lane? Expect a souped up sportscar, never-been-offroad luxury SUV or work vehicle to be a sudden brake from an accident behind you. Trying to make it past a car doing 10 below the limit in the third lane from the left? Too bad, the fast lane is taken up by somebody doing 103. Even when the latter happens, expect the aforementioned sportscar, SUV or tradie truck to continue tailgating and flashing their lights, despite the fact you’re in the same boat. It’s the law of the jungle in the far right lane, so make sure your will and testament will be easily found in your soon-to-be mangled wreckage.

The middle right (Pestilence): ‘Keep left unless overtaking’ is a guideline that most drivers take to heart on the Pacific Motorway. That’s why they sit in the second furthest lane from the left, thus generously allowing others to overtake them from the far right lane while they cruise along at 20 below the speed limit. The middle-right lane is the default for commuters: easily the most congested, it also tends to elicit the most frustration. A conga line of cars about a kilometre long can wait with varying degrees of patience while a driver jaunts along at 90km/h, with no traffic in the lanes to their left. But it’s okay, they’re keeping left. The middle right lane is often the reason the far right lane is prone to people sitting below the speed limit, desperately trying to move ahead of the person to their left going even slower than them. Avoid if you don’t want a hoarse throat before reaching the beach.

The middle left (Death): Not named because it’s the most mortally dangerous lane, but because it’s full of undertakers. Frustrated by the slowness of the middle right lane and the lack of progress in the far right, some speedsters will duck and weave into this lane, between even more sluggish vehicles, to get ahead of the queue. This is a risky move: not only is it unpredictable, but there’s every chance the cars to the right of you will inexplicably speed up, leaving you stuck behind a caravan doing 80. Other inhabitants of this lane include trucks, older, less powerful cars and people just trying to get to their destination without dealing with far right lane politics.

The far left (Famine): Apart from those with engines too weak to reach the speed limit consistently, nobody stays in the left lane for long. Either using it briefly in their three-lane mad dash to reach an exit coming up in 200 metres, or arriving from the on-ramp to join their preferred spot in the middle right lane, the far left lane is a dreary, depressing place you stay away from unless you absolutely must. Beware of people entering the motorway at 20 below the limit, expecting for the rest of the traffic to suddenly brake for them as they merge without warning. It’s also home to some of the most extreme undertakers.
So there you have it. For the three-lane sections, merge Famine and Death into the left lane. For the two lane sections, merge War and Pestilence. In peak hour traffic, replace all lanes with “Weep softly”.

Enjoy your drive! Be safe returning home this Easter, which means if you’re reading this while driving, please, please reconsider your life choices.

With apologies to Kevin Rudd

Australian House of Representatives, 12 February 2052

The Clerk: Government business notice number 1, Motion offering an apology to asylum seeker children kept in Australian detention centres.

The Speaker: Prime Minister.

Prime Minister: Madam Speaker, I move:

That today we honour the refugee children of this land, those who have richly contributed to this country we call home.

We reflect on their past mistreatment.

We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were children in offshore detention – this blemished chapter in our nation’s history.

The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

We apologise especially for the mental anguish of these children on distant islands, and the effect it has had on their families and their community.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these children, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the languishing, the trauma, the uncertainty, we say sorry.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a desperate people searching for help, we say sorry.

We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.

For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.

A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, whether from across the seas or born on our nation’s shores, to close the gap that lies between us in prejudice, xenophobia and hatred.

A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.

A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

Diagnosis Wanderlust

10404486_10152431523987567_8074948124992286700_nTHE symptoms will strike without warning, finding their way into your day in vulnerable places like the office, the morning commute or even your empty house.

All of a sudden you suffer a heaviness of the heart, concentration loss and a mild delirium that flings you to places visited and destinations for which only imagination is a source.

The twin forces of nostalgia and forward optimism combine to flash images of distant lands, miles of asphalt under wheels, friendly faces speaking in foreign tongues, desert, forest and vast oceans. Read more of this post

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

My kind of town, Chicago is… in summer

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Chicago in the summer.

“YEAH, I could live here,” I thought as I strolled along the Lake Michigan shoreline.

It was a sunny June morning and I was on a decent hike from my hostel through skyscraper-lined streets, parkland, beaches, and riverfront, soon to arrive at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

America’s third-largest city was alive with a pulsing energy, the L was shuffling along the tracks overhead and I was growing ever more in love with this place.

That morning I had life all planned out: I’d get back to Australia, take out my life savings, somehow score a job at the Tribune and live in a hip inner-north suburb; my days spent interviewing the people who inhabited this great city and my nights whiled away at jazz and blues bars, or perhaps at the baseball.

But, like all summer flings, my feelings of forever with Chicago weren’t to last. Out of curiosity while writing this post in early January, I had a quick peek at the city’s weather to find – yikes – one degree and overcast, with the mercury to plummet to -13 on Monday.

There’s no way a kid who found the New England highland of New South Wales – a place where it snowed only once in 16 months of living there – too cold for comfort could cut it in Chicago for even a year.

The city had given me plenty of warnings: street signs reminding drivers not to park in areas of high snow concentration and large, glass overpasses between buildings so shoppers wouldn’t need to brave the frigid December temperatures. Hell, even the breeze which so cooled me in the humid start of summer should have been enough to warn me it would return with a vengeance in December, driving Arctic gusts through the Great Lakes and straight into my chest.

But I ignored all of those hints. I was too focused on the beachgoers, the advertisements for open air concerts in Millennium Park, the ice-cream stands on the footpath, the pollen drifting between the trees in the leafy suburbs.

Because Chicago and its citizens understand they have only a short time in the warmth and sunshine, they make the most of it. We have a tendency in Australia – and especially in Brisbane – to take for granted the year-round good weather. An outdoors market like the Teneriffe Festival, in the middle of winter, is of no concern because we don’t need to huddle up for warmth.

But Chicago lacks that luxury, so summer feels like a massive party, making the most of the heat before it disappears for another nine months.

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Chicago in the summer.

And even with those tastes of summer, there were parts of the city where you’d still feel like you were in Gotham, expecting the Batmobile to swing round the corner any minute.

From the moment I got off the bus opposite the art deco Union Station, I was in love with the city’s architecture. The sheer density of the inner city and its mix of styles made the whole town feel like an exciting, avant-garde experiment. It helps that it’s built on a dead flat plain, making the height of the Willis and Hancock towers all the more impressive.

Rather than the dull-as-dishwater glass monotony of modern Australian architecture, Chicago’s beauty lies in its grime and its lived-in feel. And that’s as prevalent in summer as it is in winter, so you’re hardly missing out on getting a true feel for the city if you don’t go in the dead of January.

So, no, Chicago and I will never be long-term. But I’ll still be dreaming of those marvellous summer days listening to the jazz buskers beneath the raised L train tracks, shopping in hipster stores Newtown could only dream of and gorging on the heinously unhealthy deep dish pizzas and caramel and cheddar popcorn.

We can never be together, but we’ll always have June.