O, Christmas Tree

I had a perfectly timely plan that centred around WordPress Wednesday and December 1 (traditional lights-on day) aligning this year.

But life got in the way, so welcome to Thursday, December 2.

At the moment I’m working 14 hour days because of HSC marking at night (and on Saturdays), so very little is getting done at home. This is not good because it’s Christmas lights time.

So on Monday, Miss Almost-23 and I both took a day’s leave and worked on decorating the house. Because it’s the most industrious time of the year.

According to my Facebook memories, her enthusiasm kicked in approximately eight years ago. In response to her sudden self-promotion to Head Elf, her brother apparently announced, “Now there’s two of them everything should get done faster, Dad!”

Now, I know some people have beautifully curated trees and decorative themes, and while this is something to which I’ve always aspired, in reality we’re a little bit closer to the “Christmas threw up on our house” end of the spectrum than I’d like.

This isn’t ours.
Nor is this.

And as much as I annually check out the Balsam Hill site and sigh over pre-lit flip trees, I just don’t feel, as a proud owner of a mortgage or two, that I can justify it quite yet.

Aforementioned Head Elf and the Spousal Unit, however, have both acted as the devil on my shoulder, telling me I need one. Child the Younger, who has thrown to the Grinch side of the family, tried to convince me to instead buy a very economical and pre-decorated one from the discount store where he works. The very concept baffles me, if I’m honest.

Then the Spousal Unit had a moment and told me that he likes “our” tree. I told him I was looking at an additional tree, not a replacement tree, and suddenly he was on board again.

(We have two living areas: a family room and a formal room. If that’s not a recipe for two trees, I don’t know what is!)

You see, the reason we can’t have a beautifully curated colour themed tree like the ones above is that our tree’s “theme” is pretty much the history of us. There are the decorations made by the kids when they were in preschool. Sure, I tuck them away at the back, but they are there. There’s even one that my son made in Science a bit later on.

This isn’t bad, all things considered.
It’s a Santa hat. With crystals on it. He grew the crystals. He was very excited.

There are the decorations made by my friend Jody and my late bonus-mother, Sue.

There are even the clay present tags my niece and nephew made several years back.

But mostly, there are the “special” decorations chosen each year to represent something that’s happened in our lives. The idea is that the kids will eventually take “their” decorations with them, but we don’t seem to be there yet. Possibly because they have a curated, colour-themed tree at the flat. In fact, they also have a matching garland after I stopped in at Bredbo on the way back from a conference two years ago and the lovely staff dutifully went searching for a white garland, which the Head Elf/Child the Elder had, up until then, found elusive.

Significant appreciation for that garland is required. It took effort.

Some of our special decorations date back a long time; others have come a long way. Courtesy of multiple trips to Disneyland, we’re heavy on the Disney decos. That Cheshire Cat was the best surprise though … the smile glows in the dark. Magic.

Each trip, I would ask the kids to pick a decoration. This ranged from the ridiculous (“Really? You want a plastic M and M guitar ornament as a memento of this trip?”) to the sublime (“Well, yes. I do think Baymax tangled up in Christmas lights is the coolest thing ever.”) to the downright dangerous (“Sure. If we wrap that huge, fine, spherical Jack Skellington bauble very, very carefully, we can get it home on the plane in one piece. Probably.”)

Other times, we’d pick something that represented their year: Jamie’s obsession with Cinderella, Robert’s with Angels baseball, Jamie’s “graduation” from high school.

And then there was the time when Rob and I travelled to the States for Ellyn’s wedding. In New York, he found a Minnie Mouse-as-Liberty decoration and asked, “Mum, do you think this would be a good gift for Jamie?”

Why, yes, Son. In fact, it’s perfect.

Speaking of Ellyn, she’s represented, too. Back when she and Jamie were concurrently undertaking dance lessons, I bought some absolutely heinous (in my opinion) pink, glitter, ballet slipper decorations. They both love pink. And glitter. And dance. One slipper hangs on our tree; the matching one was sent to El.

For her part, she sends us representative ones from her state.

Because that’s another thing: when I travel, I try to find a decoration. It started with my Vancouver lights bear. Ros was with me when I bought him, and has of course been on many conferences with me in various places so she knows about this little habit of mine. Which means I have a lot of bonus decorations from when she’s visited Christmas markets in far-flung places.

We also have some matching ones, from joint trips. Matching Texas stars, for example. And also these matching paua shell angels, a personal favourite. Picked up in an airport after believing that perhaps I had missed my chance to find something on that particular trip, and look at her. She’s beautiful.

There are a bunch of decorations from our family travels. We’re missing South Africa and Antarctica, but all the other continents are represented, which is not bad going from our little regional Australian outpost.

It’s pretty much the history of us and our family, both biological and the ones we’ve claimed. And family times – the positive kind! – is what Christmas is all about. And so, from our family to yours, and to quote one of Ellyn’s gifted decorations: Merry Christmas, Y’all.

It’s A Small World

One of the first signs that things were bad on the COVID-front, for me, was the news that Disneyland was closing. And it has now been closed for months.

I’ve written before about how I love Disneyland, despite an awareness of how Disney changes/whitewashes history, as well as significant discomfort with unreconstructed gender roles in the Princess films (although there does seem to be some progress in more recent iterations). My current visit count is Tokyo Disneyland (twice), Paris Disneyland, Disneyland Resort/California Adventure (five times, I think?) and Disney World. During various trips to the US and Canada, I’ve learned that I can cope with jetlag relatively well if I land on the West Coast, but if I head straight over to the East Coast, my body just can’t cope. At all. So my last couple of trips, we’ve flown to LA and stayed in Anaheim a few days to recover before heading off to see our family on the other side of the country.

A quick explainer about how I have family in the US: about a million years ago when I was a teenager, I went on student exchange to Japan through an organisation called AFS (hence the first Tokyo Disney trip – number one on my Disney Bingo card). Then when my kids were little (as in infants/toddlers), I got re-involved in the organisation as a way to meet people in my new home of Nowra. And on three separate occasions, I was asked to support some incoming students. The first of these was my daughter Ellyn. I didn’t see Ellyn again until we went to the US on a dance trip. She flew across the country to see us, and must have decided we were OK, because she came out to visit and stayed with us not long afterwards.

Reunited. One of my all-time favourite photos, I have this one hanging on a wall in our home.
The days before Zoom – ten years ago, possibly to the day if Facebook memories are to be believed.

The last couple of trips where I enacted the Anaheim plan were with my son to see Ellyn marry David, and later, with my daughter to meet their daughter, Emma. I had hoped to get over there this year to meet her newest addition, wee Carter, but that has been delayed indefinitely.

One of the coolest of the many cool things about Ellyn is that she comes as part of a package deal with her large and loving family. We’ve hung out with her parents, siblings, in-laws and niblings in various locales across the States. Her sister-in-law, Erynn, and I used to joke that the universe might implode if we were ever in the same place, because we share so many interests (I am happy to report that it did not). She’s interested in popular culture and special education, so has actually read a lot of my stuff. Voluntarily.

So when Erynn put out the call via social media for some help to keep the Disney magic alive, of course I offered to assist.

The network of global parks has meant that for a great many years, the most famous earworm of them all, Small World, has played somewhere every hour of every day. So with the parks closed, we decided a network of people playing it in their homes would just have to do, for now. I picked a time that was early evening here, to save our Stateside folks from being up at a most inhumane hour.

Every night during the evening news, my phone plays the song.

Suffice to say, my family are very much looking forward to the parks’ scheduled reopenings over the next week or two.

Small World DLR Xmas Overlay, November 2017

Mea Culpa, and #theafseffect

Forgive me, Readers, for it is WordPress Wednesday, and it has been six weeks since my last post. SIX! Does that make me a lapsed WordPresser?

So, what’s my excuse? Well, the excuses are plentiful and varied. June was something of a blur, as Roslyn and I from Shapeshifters in Popular Culture have been working very hard on finishing off our latest book, which is all about how mental illness is represented (or misrepresented, or just ignored) on TV. And it’s very nearly done. Ros is putting the finishing touches to the chapter on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder but it has otherwise all been collated into one document and I’m sorting out referencing and so on (the joys!). As soon as we’re both happy with it, it’s off to the person we very much hope will agree to write the Foreword, and then it will be winging its way through cyberspace to our wonderful publishers at McFarland. 

Mcfarland logo

So I was working on that until June 30, and then from July 2, I was in Melbourne for the tenth annual PopCAANZ conference.  I presented some of our work from the book at this year’s event; specifically, looking at the representation of clinical depression in You’re the Worst. This series is not very well known in Australia–literally no one in the audience had watched it!–but it is well worth the effort. I’ve talked my husband into watching it, and he’s really enjoying the quirky, non-traditional characters. As well as being quite unlikeable in the conventional sense, two of the four leads have diagnosed mental illness, and are living under the same roof.

inauspicious meeting
Gretchen (Aya Cash) meets Jimmy (Chris Geere) in the pilot of You’re the Worst.

Now, hold on to your hats for this “spoiler”- the show actually does a pretty realistic depiction of clinical depression, including periods where Gretchen is asymptomatic, and periods where she lies in bed. The latter is really significant; despite being the single most prevalent mental health disorder in the word, we haven’t really seen much depression in screen because people lying in bed doesn’t move narratives forward. In fact, I would argue that we didn’t really see it at all until as recently as 2015.

Ian and Gretchen
Ian Gallagher (Cameron Monaghan), Shameless (US); Gretchen Cutler (Aya Cash), You’re the Worst.

So, in the ten days since Melbourne, what have I been up to? Well, lots of meetings, and lots of driving between Wollongong, Nowra and the Southern Highlands. The pace has been pretty intense, because I’m about to head off on some much-anticipated leave, so there are a lot of loose ends that are frantically being tied (or at least, we are trying to tie them).

My daughter is currently in Buenos Aires, doing a subject for her University course. And she invited me to join her for a few days at the end of her course, so that we can go and visit my “bonus children” who live in South America.

You see, once upon a time many, many years ago, I was fortunate enough to go to Japan for a year on a high school exchange with the AFS International, on a scholarship generously provided by the Tokyo Municipal Government. It was an amazing experience, and I met some of my very best friends there (and in fact, recently caught up with one in Melbourne!). I expanded my horizons, my language abilities, my family and yes, my waistline (we used to joke that AFS stood for ‘another fat student.’) And while there are some ancient photos from that time, they are all analogue and not with me.

I remained involved in the organisation for a few years, and then when we moved to Nowra and I knew absolutely nobody bar my (working) husband and own (infant) child, I got in touch with the local branch and introduced myself. Here, I met another really special friend, Sue. Sue’s job in this volunteer organisation was to find host families for incoming students; mine was to prepare the outgoing ones. And every year she would see me start to waver and want to host a student and she would remind me that no, our little family couldn’t really afford the time or financial commitment for six months or a year. But I became her go-to as a support mum (another person outside the host-family; a kind of counsellor, who has typically also been on exchange), temporary mum (when students were moving between placements); or billet mum (if a student was coming to a regional event in the Shoalhaven). And so that’s why, if you know me, you know I have two biological children, even though Facebook shows me as having five. And that’s why three of those kids are in their thirties when I am only in my forties myself, and why I have four grandchildren (and a fifth coming next month), despite the just-turned-adult nature of my two bio-kids.

So, the upshot of all that is that on Saturday, these two “sisters” will see each other in person for the first time in 18 years.

grace and Jamie
Jamie & Grace, December 2001

Grace  is now married with a daughter of her own, who is almost exactly the same age as Jamie in this photo.

After our whistle-stop tour of Chile, we’re off to Paraguay to see my son Dany and meet his lovely wife and two kids. His daughter is very thoughtfully having her sixth birthday while we are there, so we get to go to a party!

And when we get home, there’s about a week until my other international child has her second baby. I’ve been really fortunate to be able to catch up with Ellyn (and indeed, her entire family) a few times over the years, both in the US and here. And Jamie and I  managed to get to the US to meet her little first little one, so I’m pretty determined to get over there and witness firsthand the new big sister/little brother dynamic.

ellyn bride
The AFS Effect in Action: Bride Ellyn flanked by her Australian “brother” and “mother,” and her actual parents, Marsha and Mike, whom we also love and consider family.

And as for my bio-daughter, my current golden child because she invited me to tag along on her South American adventures? Well, her love of travel might date back to being “impressed” like a chick by these well-travelled older siblings, who came into her life when she was two or three years old. She too became an exchange student via AFS when she was just 15. She had an amazing time in the beautiful Matera region in the South of Italy. You can see the ancient Sassi region, one of the oldest inhabited areas in the world, from the town centre.


Pretty special.

This past (Australian) Summer, she and her brother headed to Europe for nigh on three months. Tony and I joined them for a month over Christmas and New Year, and were  very privileged to spend Christmas with her Italian family.

family in Italy
L, Front to back: Imma (aunt), Luisa (sister), Mariangela (mum), Michele (dad), Cecilia (cousin), Carlo (brother), Pierluca (uncle).
R, Front to back: Anna (sister), Jamie, Robert, Ester (cousin), Kimberley, Tony.

All this to say– there won’t be a post next Wednesday, either. But I will have the very best of excuses!