Halloween In the West

Halloween will forever be an awkward holiday for me.

Why? Because my Halloween experience was also my first experience with begging.

I grew up out in the Western ‘burbs, and though All Hallow’s Eve is starting to catch on in Aus, when I was a kid it was appropriately ghostly. By which I mean to say, the streets were empty. I remember – as a good and studious child raised by television – being the only one who really had any inkling it was a thing, or at least cared enough to want to see it happen.

One memory stands out in particular. It was near the end of the day but the sun was still out, and it suddenly occurred to me that it was Halloween. Halloween meant sweets. Meant candy. We could do it. No, we should do it.  I’m not entirely sure how I managed to rope my older brother and cousin and friend into tagging along with me – maybe they were forced to by my aunty as a safety measure – but out onto the streets we went. It’s where we belonged, anyway.

Here’s the rub though: due to the last minute nature of the revelation that a holiday was technically occurring (sort of, not really), we didn’t have costumes. We just had bags. So, three little Arabs (in ascending order of height) and a Tongan went door-knocking for sweets. The cavalcade of awkward responses that followed will stay with me for the rest of my life. Being older now, and a writer, I can doubly appreciate the weirdness of it, but at the time, I was armed with the oblivious enthusiasm of a child.

We had no strategy. No real aim, or direction. Our choices were arbitrary. We’d pick a house, and go knock on the door. Stand there in broad daylight with our bags, and wait for someone to answer the door, which didn’t happen as often as you might think. There was a house at the top of our street, it was oddly shaped like a long L, and shaded with all manner of trees. We knocked on the oak wood door, and waited for a moment. Then two. Just as we were about to go, we heard footsteps, and the door opened to reveal a middle-aged overweight Asian man in boxers and a singlet.

He looked bleary and confused and he had every right to be, although now I have to wonder what he was doing in such a state on a weekday, at around 6pm. He stared at us and we stared at him, none of us really sure what to do. I honestly don’t even recall if we offered up a weak, ‘trick or treat’? The notion terrifies me now. The only reason I recall this particular instance is because I was of a height with this man’s distended chest, and his nipples were of a level with my eyes. They remain, to this day, the longest, weirdest nipples I have ever seen. I mean, they were a solid inch or two or three and covered in hair. I’m fairly sure it mentally scarred me.

Needless to say, we got nothing out of that encounter except a healthy dose of fear.

There was another house a few streets down I recall thanks to the delightful shouted-conversation that occurred when the door was opened and some dude peered at us. “What’s all this then?”

“Trick or treat?”

“Trick — Is it — is it Halloween?” He turned and shouted into the house. “It’s some kids! Halloween! Is that a thing? Do we do that here? …Shit. Hold on.”

And then we stood there, waiting, while he went back inside and furtively conferred with his partner/mother/whoever as to what the hell they should do. Did they have anything? A can of tuna perhaps? I think we got something out of it, but I’m not sure what. I don’t think we tried many houses, to be honest. It was utterly dispiriting, and yet totally hilarious. No one else did it, no one else was out there, no one really cared.

Now, of course, it seems to be more of a thing. It’s gradually catching on and I’m sure there are actual suburbs where throngs of children go out and revel in being monsters, and where adults can ponder this strange day when social norms are totally thrown out in the most blasé of fashions. “Don’t take candy from a stranger, kids! Unless it’s Halloween, then go right up to their fucking doors and demand it! It’ll be cute.” Unless you’re not dressed right and are poor, then you’re just a modern day Oliver Twist, and instead of candy, you’re left with horrible memories of elongated nipples.

These days I still appreciate Halloween, despite all of that (and sundry other episodes which I won’t get into), because it gives me an excuse to watch horror movies (not that I need one) and Hocus Pocus as often as I like, or go to dinky little cinemas and watch old flicks of gore flickering on big screens. That’s a good enough reason to be thankful that Halloween is strengthening its roots in Sydney to be sure, but I can’t help but wish it wasn’t 15 years too late.

Birdcage Academia: Break Free

Wrote something to summarise my university experience. Sort of.

*

A Writer’s DNA

Red bricks vault overhead, weighing the air with their shadow
and stark worlds are framed and inset, the better to stare out at you.

The carpeted halls are soft springs beneath your feet, like old moss
on ancient rocks. You can smell sweat & desperation & pretension

seeping out of the walls. Though the ceiling arcs
into space, beyond the crane of your neck

you feel it regarding your spine, trying to see which dust jackets
hold your flesh upright. And shudders roll down your paper vertebrae —

I took out the bones, you say & stuffed An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow
down instead and the words ridge your skin from the inside —

but that’s not true. You’ve got smudged comics and tattered paperbacks,
you’ve got popular hardbacks, lit mags, and tasteless porn too

and fuck anyone that tries to pull them out of your blood. They belong
there. You have the eyes of the Brothers Grimm, button-bright & rotting

and you have Neil Gaiman’s tongue to flay the darkness into shape
and you have Ken Kesey’s magpie hands fluttering against a flock of ideas

and you have Roald Dahl’s magic infusing your bones — they still shatter
but each shard is a dreamhouse full of nighteyed children & hollow peaches

and you have Mark Twain’s rolling river-twang voice to carve your initials
into society, and  Stephen King’s bleak heart beating inside.

Munro’s steel fuels your blood, along with Murakami’s dispassion
and Butcher’s drive; Kafka rattles around your ribcage and your Bradbury nose

is tilted toward the stars to sniff out new stories. Tolkien is your father
and Robert Jordan sings you to sleep. Your friends are numerous:

small, medium-sized, mass-market and independent, comprised of ink — digital
or otherwise. You have Marquez’ teeth, to grind cheap meals into amethysts

and your thoughts are poetry, scattershot from a pump-action in the Deep South
and suburbia is stitched into your scalp, the better to keep literary fiction

and circle-jerk academia from pecking your flesh apart. These walls
are too high and you are finally stepping out from under them

by tracing your steps back to where you began. Listen close,
and you will hear Verne calling out from beneath the sea & Lovecraft

echoing between the stars.

Imagination

So, I just completed a small task set for my Advanced Poetry unit. “Answer the following questions from a hypothetical intelligence test by inventing your answer.” I had great fun with it, so I thought I’d share the result. Feel free to share your own answers! Don’t think about it. Just respond.

**

1. What can you write using a toothpick and black ink from an octopus?

You can write the night in, line by careful line.

2. If you burnt your shoes, what could be born from their ashes?

The Chinese boy that made them.

3. If the rainbow ends not in your soul nor the horizon, where does it end?

Where it began: in the mouth of a fairytale.

4. What do we thank the clouds for?

We thank the clouds for sailing the seas of the sky, for surviving the windsharks that would tear them apart, for obscuring the deadlight of nevermore stars.

5. What does the butterfly read?

The butterfly reads the limericks of leaves twisting in the wind, and on idle Sundays, can be found nestled in a copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

6. What is the task of the ocean air?

To carry the bitter-flung curses of sailors and DJ their salty baritones with the far-off songs of sirens on rocks that jut out of the sea.

7. How would you handle the dream of a turtle?

With the utmost care, lest it retreat into itself and be lost forever.

8. What can’t you do with a glove?

A false premise: a glove can salve a President’s wounded pride, can repair torn clouds, can be stretched to cover the sky, can – if angled right – stir insects into a frenzy with shadows alone. A glove’s uses are as limitless as the answer to this question.

9. What can you do with a jewel hatched from an ancient storm?

Brew a new storm to follow its aged parent into the deeps.

10. What can you do on the day of the week that does not exist?

You can meet every version of yourself that died with the choices you made; you can see what could have been.

11. How would you speak to a blind giant snail?

Eloquently. A snail has all the time in the world to compose its sentences; I do not, therefore I must strive to match it with poetry.

12. When would you put your dreams on the table and what would you serve with them?

I would never do so – to put them on the table would mean I first had to go into the wild jungle in which they flutter, brightly coloured, and catch them with cruel hooks. Who would cage them so? No one, surely. But every other Monday, I have found, while sweeping the yard, the body of a dead dream (curiously, not unlike a butterfly, though stranger than that) and if I were to serve it up to anyone, it would be accompanied with a detached autopsy. 

Impressions of the Week

I wish my mind could settle.

It’s on some kind of fever-track, circling with demented repetition – like carrion birds over a carcass – and at such speed that I cannot even appreciate the beauty of the dead beast. The lush landscape of rotting flesh. I can never just do one thing, never just be occupied on one level. Even now, as I write this, I have a half dozen tabs open and my eyes keep flicking to my phone, waiting for it to light up and there is a book splayed on my desk that I only just put down: it is one of dozens.

I have, at a conservative estimate, some thirty books lying around the house in various stages of being read or re-read. It’s getting worse, this fever-track, it’s speeding up every day, and even when I sleep it does not stop (though it has the decency to keep the shades closed, providing me with at least the illusion of oblivion, however briefly) so I wake up at full-throttle but entirely spent. But the books, yes, I was talking about the books:

I just need a taste. Every now and then, I recall the echo of a flavour on my tongue: it will stab sharply enough to draw blood and I’ll suck in a breath and think – I need to read Huckleberry Finn again. Need to feel the Mississippi swelling beneath me, need to hear that Southern drawl, to get lost in another age, another boy, another world. So I pick it up and I find that all I need is a taste, just a touch on the tip of my tongue and I can be transported there again. I’m trying to think of where I got this idea of tasting books – it may have been Zadie Smith. Or someone else. It doesn’t matter.

Books used to be my only reprieve: I could settle in them, and stay settled, for hours and hours at a time and the voice inside would finally fall silent, overcome by the wonder of another narrator.

*

I saw a Woody Allen film.

It turns out I haven’t seen many. I had, in fact, prior to watching this new flick, seen just the one: the recent ‘Midnight in Paris’, a remarkable portrait of a city, of a writer, and the interplay of nostalgia between the past and the present. I went to the cinema and waited for a friend – I hadn’t seen her in perhaps a year or more. I was waiting on the sidewalk, just far enough removed from the stream of people passing by to truly hate them. I hate the bustle; the constant noise; the stink of them; the broken fragments of obnoxious conversations that snag my ears with the viciousness of idle fish hooks; I hate that they see me; I hate when they don’t, and most of all, I hate the incorrect use of semi-colons.

I’m standing there, one foot up against the wall, knees sagging in time with my attention-lapses and I am struck with a thought. A line in a poem perhaps, the kind I note down on my phone in their hundreds, like little lost children. Or more aptly, and gruesomely, the limbs of children waiting to be put together. (I’m going to take a moment here to scroll through my phone and find the message). It was:

He stood there waiting,
occasionally unfolding to his full height
like a sail in the wind.

It hit me with Biblical force, that thought, and now I look at it with despair. I had only just put my phone away when my friend leapt into view, salmon-jumping out of the stream. We exchanged an awkward hello — it had been a while, after all — got some food and wandered off into the park to sit and eat. It was just getting dark. The urgency of the crowds did not abate, though we were removed from it now. Sat, talking amidst the leafy green, the occasional street lantern providing light. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a dark furry shape move and noticed with some shock that there was a raccoon-like creature watching us. (I say raccoon-like because I’ve since been informed we don’t have raccoons in Sydney and it was likely a possum but that can’t be right. I’ve seen possums. Sometime. Surely. In a cartoon, perhaps.)

The explosion of panic this event caused is hilarious only because nothing at all happened. That is to say: we froze.

The following conversation is too embarrassing to replicate. It was mostly a series of ‘Oh my gods’ – delivered in increasingly higher pitch from my friend and the higher her voice went, the more the volume dropped; so that by the end, as the raccoon approached us with its nose twitching, eyes alive with curiosity, she had devolved into a razor-thin whine almost beyond perception. It was, in a word, reallyfuckingadorable. Mostly because it was exactly how I felt and I was spared having to exhibit it now that it had already been voiced. The raccoon, for its part, was totally not bothered by our motionless rapture: it remained blissfully unconcerned with us and all too intrigued with the chips it could smell.

Oh my god, it’s coming for my food!

Nor was it bothered by my half-hearted kick, and belated ‘shoo’, the only attempts I could muster to aid gender stereotypes.

Don’t, don’t, don’t! You’ll aggravate it.

So we watched in silence, praying it would leave us be (a process not helped by the couple on the opposite bench, clearly amused by the whispered hysteria, and not at all bothered by furred creatures of the night that may or may not be raccoons).

*

I meant to talk about the Woody Allen film. Fuck.

It’s just too hard to hold onto tangents. I always have a dozen threads in my hands and each one bucks in my grip and slips between my fingers and sometimes, they’re not the colours I thought they were, and sometimes they’re not cotton or twine but silk and sometimes, I can’t even identify the material. I’m a blind man weaving a tapestry.

There are rare, beautiful moments, when I have the good luck to stumble across a snarl in the weaves and even rarer moments still when I have the patience to gently unwind them, to work thick fingers in skilled exercise and to understand how it all got so tangled.

*

I was driving with mum the other week.

We’d just stopped by the house to pick something up and were off again in moments.

She said, ‘Do you know what he said to me? Your grandfather? Do you know what he – oh that prick. I can’t believe it. I can’t fucking believe it. You see, he only needed five seconds and he went and fucking did that.’

I waited.

‘He asked me for $20. I usually pay for the gardener, right, and last time he was there, I only had $50 on me, so I said, Dad, could you give me the extra 20 real quick. I pay for everything, you get me? I buy all the food, pay all the bills, everything, over $400 a week and he has the nerve to ask me for that $20? I’m not even supposed to pay the fucking gardener in the first place! Or any of it. And it’s not the money – it’s the principle. Oh, he roots me, he does.’

Her eyes flick up to the picture of my late grandmother, taped to the sun visor.
‘Sorry mum. I forgive you. For marrying a monster.’

*

After watching ‘Blue Jasmine’, I’ve since watched ‘Annie Hall’, and it’s safe to say I’m on a Woody Allen kick.

His stories are never settled  – I think that’s what I like the most. You jump from past to present to mental reflection and everything in between – always handled with the commensurate skill of a master storyteller to be sure – but never settling. The story moves in leaps and bounds and for once, my mind isn’t jumping twelve steps ahead and dancing in dizzying circles and thinking about the assessments I have to do and work the next day and the laundry and the characters in this movie, in my own stories, and the books I’m reading, and the phone in my pocket that may or may not be lit with notifications, and the state of the world —  for once I’m just comfortably keeping pace.

Weaving between here and there, now and then, between narrator, audience and the world.

I can settle there, the way I used to settle in books. I still can – more than any other medium, any other activity, even sex, which comes with its own myriad distractions – but it’s more of a labour to get lost in them now than it ever was before.