On Not Travelling

**Content warning: Suicidality, bushfires

Today was the worst Coronavirus day on record in Victoria. Again. The NSW Premier announced tougher border restrictions (anyone coming in from Vic now has to go into supervised hotel quarantine at their own expense), and the QLD Premier announced tougher border restrictions heading North, as well. Apparently the whole of NSW is now a “hot spot.” Which is kind of darkly humorous, because while places like Bunnings and Maccas are masking up, the State government is still taking a “meh … if you feel like it … you can” approach to face coverings.

Now, I had no intentions of taking a wee trip at all, but with one best mate in Vancouver, two in Vic, and one in Tassie, as well as elderly and frequently hospitalised in-laws in Queensland, the thought of not being able to pull some cash from the Emergency Fund and get myself to a place of usefulness should I need to, is not at all pleasant.

Apart from not physically being able to travel, I’m also “not travelling well” at the moment. This morning we had a very long meeting of all the folks who have been awarded Global Challenges funding relating the the rolling crises on the South Coast, and began to figure out how the researchers and regional campuses will work together on these projects. Now, this is generally a very good thing, and it’s very exciting to hear people who really care trying to make a positive difference to our people and communities. But lots of talk about being careful not to re-traumatise community members impacted by the bushfires can be a little re-traumatising in and of itself, if you were in fact one of the community members impacted.

This coalesced with a couple of other thing with which I sometimes struggle- and here’s where the content warning really kicks in, so if you need to protect yourself, please do a better job than I unwittingly have the last few days.

So a while back I got a revise and resubmit on a pop culture/disability paper where I got “Reviewer 2ed”–and one of their criticisms was that I argued that multi-(mental illness) diagnosis households are rare onscreen. And so they cited Please Like Me as also having one. So I dutifully over-compensated and watched the series in its entirety. And it does, for quite a small fraction of time, have two housemates who met as in-patients in a private facility. Rose is played by Debra Lawrance (known to many Australians as the second Pippa from Home and Away) and Netflix breakout star Hannah Gadsby plays her roomie, also named Hannah. And (Spoiler Alert – in case you’re like me and haven’t yet seen it, and are, like me, silly enough to watch it without first Googling it) despite the character of Rose having multiple suicide attempts as a major part of her narrative, I was blindsided when her son found her body in one of the very final episodes.

I watched it yesterday.

Suicide onscreen upsets me enormously and my family are all very aware of how much it unsettles me, and why. They are also aware that I am more sensitive at two distinct times of the year: around Australia Day, and right around now. And sometimes we forget why I’m grumpy and unsettled and then look at the calendar and realise. You see, today would have been my better-than-best friend’s 48th birthday, and he died at his own hand in late January when we were both 23.

The “better than best” is an old in-joke of ours. It started when I went to Japan on student exchange, back in 1990. You see, I’m so old that back when I went on student exchange, we had to communicate by mail. And people who’d been through the experience before us would always warn that you’d have a very special letter-writing friend, and it wouldn’t be your “best” friend. And so it was that my “best” friend wrote like twice the whole year I was away, but this very quiet guy who used to hang with our group sometimes and whom I sat next to in roll call, surprised and delighted me by writing hilarious and detailed letters at least once a fortnight. I still have them. His name was Jamie, and he’s the reason our daughter is named Jamie.

I still miss him terribly, and I worry about sharing the story. I try to be careful to only tell my bit, and not encroach on the grief of his family (who have been absolutely wonderful to both our Jamie and her brother alike). But today, as always, he is very much loved and remembered. And I’m going to try show myself some kindness and compassion over the next day or two — the way he did.

Clayton’s Lockdown

Our Prime Minister says we’re not in lockdown, and cautions against using such “alarmist” language. But we are only supposed to be leaving home to work or study (when that can’t be done from home), to buy essentials, to assist others or to get necessary healthcare. Our state Premier has listed 16 legitimate excuses to be outside your home, including the above. You can cop a fine of up to $11 000 if you’re in breach. It feels pretty locked down, I have to say.

This is Day 8 of working from home, for me. If I could actually sleep at night meaning that more than two neurons fired at any given time, I think I’d be quite productive. In my non-work time, I’ve cleaned the oven racks (!), baked, made soup, and painted a room that was badly in need of it.

 

In addition to dealing with whatever new crises COVID-19 throws at us, I’m watching The Originals because being aware of the full gamut of the Vampire Diaries universe may come in very handy if a book proposal on TVD–of which I will be co-editor–is accepted by our preferred publisher. Taking notes is about the right speed in these times, I think. I do have a couple of other deadlines in the next week or two that will require me to write and organise some cogent thoughts. But for now I’m trying to follow all the advice about transitioning to working from home (and in the face of a pandemic, no less), and show myself a little bit of the grace I’m extending to others in our newly-more-distributed team.

co worker
This coworker hasn’t left my desk.

relaxed coworker
She’s right at home.

Things remain oddly surreal. I sold a dozen eggs this morning – the customer, a semi-regular, works in health. So she organised to drop off the money in a zip lock bag, and asked me to leave the eggs out the front. We waved through the front windows and had a conversation via Messenger. This is our new normal.

As you can see from the images of Scout above, my laptop which comes home daily anyway, has now been joined by the computer monitors and webcam from work. We won’t be eating at the dining room table anytime soon. Last week some colleagues called me while they were having a socially distant lunch, and we all sat outside –they in their location and me in mine–and caught up on each others’ lives.

My husband has started working from home, but is rostered to go to work one day a week. That day is today. It is eerily quiet and somehow lonelier without him here.

The sky is grey and it’s threatening to rain, so the whole “go for a walk outside for your mental health and some Vitamin D” advice is unlikely to be followed anytime soon.

Big corporations like Coles and Woolies have stopped their home delivery services in order to redeploy their delivery trucks to the elderly and disabled. I typically used them because crowded shops can trigger my anxiety, even at the best of times. A local wholesaler and a local fruit & veg market have both started a home delivery service in the last couple of days. I’ve placed my order. I’m not sure the conglomerates will have as much of a market share when this is all over.

Unlike Scout who has taken up residence under my monitors, her litter-mate Tinkerbell is freaked out by the humans being home as much as they are, and is making herself scarce. (Yes, the ex-English teacher gave the cats literary names). Tink did decide, however, to join me yesterday after work, to survey the newly completed room.

TinkSo, yes there are some definite advantages to this working from home gig. I leave on time, and my commute is from the dining room to a couch or a bed to listen to a podcast and quickly decompress. I’m saving on petrol. I’ve cut my coffee intake back by two-thirds.

And I do get to have my pets in the “office,” which is a first.

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.

 

sassi
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!