Jill Foster’s daughter, writer Laurie Newbound, has announced that her mother passed away peacefully on March 24, 2017, “shortly after midnight, at home surrounded by love”.
I was first drawn to Jill after watching her on reruns of Bewitched in the early ‘90s. Indeed, Jill was probably best known outside of her native Canada for playing adman Darrin Stephens’ (Dick York) girl Friday, Betty, on the series. Darrin actually had eight “Bettys”. Long before that HR nightmare Murphy Brown, it seems that McMann & Tate Advertising had a niggling problem with secretary turnover, but didn’t want to go so far as to hang the expense of a new desk nameplate. Jill’s Betty appeared in 10 episodes from 1965-1969. Interestingly, often her character’s surname differed: with Betty Schaeffer, then Willis, and then Wilson arguably giving Liz Taylor a run for her money. One Bewitched website owner, Vic Mascaro, suggests, “Apparently while not in the office, she was finding new husbands!” In real life, Jill wasn’t doing anything of the sort. Her part on Bewitched came about through her partnership with one of the show’s writers and script consultant, Bernard Slade, whose actual name is Bernard Newbound. Jill and Bern (as he likes to be called) were married for nearly 65 years. He survives her, along with children Laurie and Christopher.
It is somewhat peculiar that I singled Jill out from the cast, particularly since her part was typically small and restricted to a few scenes in an episode. I have a way of doing that. Of course, I adored the series lead Elizabeth Montgomery. After all, what 10-year-old child, unless utterly devoted, writes for a school assignment a recipe poem (remember those?) about a woman who had played a witch 20 years previously, and who was now busying herself starring in TV movies as vicious nurses, domineering mothers, and serial killers? But I’m often drawn to the co-stars and featured performers. On Bewitched it was people like Jill, Kasey Rogers (as Louise Tate, Larry Tate’s wife) and guest stars Charles Lane, Reta Shaw, and Sara Seegar. Perhaps it was also because while Jill’s part was small, she was terrific in it, and it hinted at the depth of her comedic acting ability.
Born Florence Jill Hancock on May 9, 1930 (we share a birthday, albeit some decades apart) in Toronto, Jill did have office experience. As Frank Peppiatt told it in his memoir, when TV first came to Canada in 1952, Jill was working in a stockbroker’s office, as well as a member of a theatre group. Frank and his pal, John Aylesworth, were working at MacLaren Advertisting when their former colleague, Peter MacFarlane, now a producer and director at CBC, took the pair to lunch. Based on their office straight man-funny man routines, Peter asked if the pair would write some comedy, the one genre, as Frank wrote, “CBC lacked … on its television schedule”.
After a few nights staring at what other writers have told me they dread the most – the blank yellow legal pad – Peppiatt and Aylesworth came up with the idea of a skit involving “seeing comic book characters relaxing on their day off”. More specifically, the skit would involve Superman “at home in a crappy apartment”, with “a creepy father who couldn’t care less about his prowess”, and his “floozy-looking” mother. The brass asked Peppiatt and Aylesworth to appear in a test of the skit, and so they had to find Mother. Peppiatt remembered a friend’s ex-girlfriend named Florence Hancock, who had starred in a production of Born Yesterday, as well as playing “the nutty mother” in You Can’t Take It with You. Peppiatt told Aylesworth, “I saw her play the lead in Born Yesterday – you know, the Judy Holliday part. She was hilarious”. Rehearsing the skit in Peppaitt’s mother’s basement (I won’t ruin for you how they managed to put Frank’s Superman costume together; CBC didn’t yet have a costume department to furnish the outfit), as well as another skit where Florence would play a gun moll, Florence allayed the men’s fears about their abilities to memorise the lines. She also brought along her new guy, Bernard Newbound, to help cue the trio during rehearsal.
Based on their studio test filmed one Saturday morning, CBC offered Peppiatt & Ayelsworth and Jill Foster (Florence’s chosen stage name) an initial run of 10 one-hour live shows. And so, After Hours was born. Jill and Bern were married the same year, on July 25, 1953.
In reading about After Hours and other early television variety shows whether in Canada, the United States, or my own Australia, you get a real sense of the ingenuity of these pioneers. It was all a brave new world, and Jill’s collaboration with the comedy team is on ready display in Peppiatt’s book; as is her excitement at the prospect of the new series. The trio went on to The Big Revue (1953-54) and On Stage (1954-55), with Norman Jewison producing and directing the programs, and then Here’s Duffy (1958-1959). Jill made appearances across other major anthology series of the time throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, including CBC Summer Theatre, On Camera, and General Motors Theatre (known as Encounter in the U.S., and also by other names in Canada depending on the program’s current sponsor). In one segment of General Motors Theatre, “Blue Is for Boys” (1960), which was in fact Bern’s play Simon Says Get Married, Jill played Julie, the “charming scatterbrain” paired with William Redfield’s character via an electronic dating service. Actually, Jill was also quite active in theatre in Toronto, appearing at the famed Crest Theatre, including in Simon Says Get Married. Gordon Pinsent, who worked multiple times with Jill, wrote of her in his autobiography that she was “a natural comedic talent who never seemed to be ‘acting’”.
While a genuine comedienne at CBC, Jill played in drama, too, including in a highly-lauded television production of her husband’s play “A Very Close Family” screened on CBC’s Festival in 1964, in which she played Melvyn Douglas’ daughter. She also played the wife of a bank robber who has dynamite-d himself up in “Power to Destroy” (1958) on General Motors Theatre ; a “shrewish wife”, Myra, opposite Gordon Pinsent in an episode of Playdate called “Willow Circle” (1963); and in a segment of The Unforeseen called “Rendezvous” (1959) that sounds decidedly “The Twilight Zone” chilling. Her daughter Laurie recently posted a picture to social media of Jill appearing on General Motors Theatre in “Lost in the Crowd” (1957), directed by – as Jill often was – Paul Almond. Laurie commented “She is so good in this scene, she makes me cry”. The Newbounds/Slades often appeared together, including on the series A Case for the Court (1962), in a story of uxoricide (I had to look it up, too – it’s murdering one’s wife – Bern and Jill weren’t the couple). For some fun, Jill appeared with her husband on his quiz show, Life a Borrowed Life, as well on The Superior Sex.
The Newbounds moved to the United States in 1964 and Jill’s acting work slowed down. Besides Bewitched, she appeared on her husband’s Love on a Rooftop as Florence (there you go), and in a unsold pilot with a who’s who of comedy, In Name Only (1969), a Harry Ackerman-E.W. Swackhamer production scripted by Bern (Ackerman’s wife, Elinor Donahue, also appeared).
In May 1977, Bernard and Jill starred as George and Doris in a production of Bernard’s megahit Same Time, Next Year at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton. A newspaper article at the time rightly placed Jill as being “one of the first television performers” in Canada and star of CBC dramas.
It was some time before we saw Jill on television again. In 1996, she was back at CBC to appear on the highly-publicised A Tribute to Peppiatt & Aylesworth: Canada’s First TV Comedy Team, as part of the series Adrienne Clarkson Presents. In the interim, Jill and Bern had travelled the world, were now grandparents, and Jill, according to Laurie, was most at home in her kitchen. Reflecting on those early days at CBC and working with Peppiatt and Aylesworth for the program, Jill summed up her feelings, “It was a great period. I guess I’d like to do it again”.
In 2003, I was looking to locate Jill for an interview. I emailed Bill Aylesworth, John’s son, and then Paul Almond. They were both happy to try to put us in touch and enthusiastic I had an interest in that period and their/their family’s work. Unfortunately, they both let me know that Jill declined. I now know that she was unwell at that time and this was the likely reason for her not wanting to participate. However, I was happy to hear that Jill had maintained her friendships over all that time. As Bill told me in August 2003, “I just saw her a few weeks ago in San Diego. My dad was having a 75th Birthday bash and Jill, Bernard Slade, Rich Little and others attended”. He also mentioned that Jill and his mother played tennis together. Paul told me that he was in continual touch with Jill, and he spoke very highly of her. Sadly, Peppiatt & Aylesworth are now gone. Paul is gone, too. He was a champion for maintaining the history of those “golden years” of television. He wrote in one 2005 email that “I actually put my Moviola into an editing room museum I set up years ago, and now it’s priceless – these early years of TV will be a treasure trove, with all the new digital stuff coming up”.
I am glad to see he was right, and I look forward to finding much more of Jill’s – as well as Paul’s and Bernard’s and all the countless others who made history – work. I am reminded in reading over old emails how wonderful it was to email back and forth with Paul over that period. I look back now and, while I was very respectful, I don’t think I really got at the time the fact that these men and women were giants and pioneers. I hope more of the work becomes available. Paul did write me about the practice of kinescopes and tapes being destroyed or lost, which he jokingly said meant that of his work, “a lot is (deservedly) missing”! Certainly, so long as Bewitched is playing somewhere in the world, there Jill will be. And that show really is immortal. Of course, there’s the theory that signals from the early days of television may finally be reaching outer space. Perhaps, somewhere, there’s Frank as Superman, with Jill and John, as the Man of Steel’s parents, telling their son that Lois Lane is on to him.
Mom: She told me she saw you changing in a phone booth. Superman: No, no, never! Mom: She’s just stringing you along. Dad: So she can get scoops for that rag, the Daily Planet. Mom: Fish wrap.
The scent of toothpaste took me fleetingly back to Athens.
Let me explain. First, let me wish you a happy new year. I went back to work last week after two weeks off over Christmas. Dusting a shelf at the bottom of my office bookcase, my cloth knicked and got caught on a thick book. The book was from the first international conference I ever attended, which was held in Athens in 2006. The conference boasted an impressive number of individual presentations, symposiums, and posters, and so the abstract booklet was frustratingly heavy as I lugged it around in my backpack after I left Athens and went travelling around Europe with my friend Carlo. Rooming with us for nearly a month, the book often ended up alongside my toiletry bag in my backpack. As a result, it took on a distinct smell of toothpaste that remains to this day. When I started flicking back through that book, I was instantly transported back to sunny Athens and the little newspaper stands that lined the streets around my hotel on Leofóros Vasilissis Sofias. Before you Google that avenue, the hotel was the Hilton Athens. Trust me, the indulgence didn’t last and we then stayed in some decidedly shitty hotels where breakfast was often served cold with a side of surly. While I was on this flight of fancy in my office, memories of Rome, Berlin, and a rainy Amsterdam flashed past.
For the last few weeks, I’ve felt surrounded by so many different scents. There was the cut and often sprinkler-soaked grass of the suburban streets we walked over the Christmas break. I also threw myself into amateur chemistry when trying on colognes and perfumes for potential gifts, positioning each atomiser’s nozzle slightly higher up my arm. Just the other day, I unwrapped a gift of a lovely bar of L’Occitane soap to use in the shower. Then there are the smells of Christmas. Some would say Christmas is a delicate bouquet of turkey, port, and the bittersweet spice of simmering family tensions and heated recriminations. For me, Christmas smells like panettone.
The first day back at work is always the hardest. It was made harder still by not having anything in the house for breakfast, except for a single chunk of the panettone Bob and I (ok, mostly I) had been snacking on for much of the holidays. Most people from an Italian background will tell you that they start eating this traditionally Milanese sweet bread/cake (or the similar but different pandoro, originally from Verona) just before Christmas Day and continue to do so until at least February or March. From then, the colomba, an Easter cake shaped like a dove, swoops in to save the day. I always knew it was Christmas when I’d go over to my nonna’s house and the spare room was piled high with panettones for family, friend, and (because we’re Italian) foe alike. Easter was denoted by the colomba and plastic fruit and vegetable bags stuffed with Palm Sunday palms. Looking at these, I’d get the distinct impression that when parishioners went up to get their blessed branches from the priest, Nonna had gone up for seconds. For those who have never partaken, panettone smells like sweet dough and candied fruit, and sometimes chocolate. Panettone smells like Christmas. Christmas doesn’t only have a smell; it also has a shape – and that shape is cupola, octagon, or even frustum, depending on your brand of choice.
That first morning before my return to work, I boiled water, prepared a towel…no wait, that’s not it. Like Prissy in Gone with the Wind, I’m no midwife. The water was for coffee, the towel for a shower. I found some cream biscuits at the back of the cupboard, and I silently cursed my generosity from a few nights earlier when I’d taken to a party the Balocco Torte in Festa with lemon cream (I won’t explain this one – just know it’s delicious) that I’d gifted myself during a trip to the supermarket.
We didn’t do much over the break. It had been a busy year and we (or I, but Bob kindly obliged) wanted some quiet time. I had put a lot of energy into preparing for a conference I was involved in, which was held in Brisbane in late November. Brisbane is one Australian capital city that is less familiar to me than others. I had only been there once before; funnily enough, it was for the same conference. I think that I mentally categorised Brisbane early on with the Gold Coast from a trip my family took to the latter when I was 15. Geography has never been my strong point, and somewhere along the way I started to equate the two as if they were suburbs apart (try an hour to an hour-and-a-half drive). I also don’t seem to have retained any memories of the sightseeing or theme park visits from that first trip. Instead, I have four memories. The first is of a little notepad I’d brought along to write down my thoughts (I’d briefly taken up journaling), but ended up using to jot down the cast lists of any films that were on the TV while we were there. I can’t really tell you anything about the plot of Wild America starring Devon Sawa, but I can tell you who the director of photography was. My second memory is of having dinner on a marina and being allowed to sneak a few sips of my mother’s piña colada. The third is of buying a copy of Lauren Bacall’s Now. For some reason, it had very coarse pages that made them difficult to turn. I didn’t even take off the dust jacket like people do when reading something in public that could get you looks. Finally, I remember the smell of chlorine and beach in the elevators, reception areas, and hallways of hotels and apartment complexes. That probably sticks with me the most. Later my memories of the Gold Coast would be of weddings on houseboats, Bundaberg Rum, and those little circular hotel soaps, but they are stories about another me in another time.
When the taxi pulled up outside of the Royal on the Park on Alice Street, I knew I’d made the right choice of conference hotel. I’d chosen it largely because it was a couple of minutes’ stroll from the conference venue. However, the late ‘60s or early ‘70s front of the building appealed to me. I mean that in the best way. It seems that ‘60s architecture is widely lauded, but often the images conjured up when mentioning ‘70’s architecture are of wood panelling and burnt orange tones. I happen to love burnt orange, not that there was any in sight. The hotel had a warm, inviting lobby, the elevators a level of bygone charm, and my room was spacious and contemporary after a recent new fit out. The hotel is also across from the City Botanic Gardens. It was a treat to walk to and from the conference passing through those gardens. My stay in Brisbane was a short three days because I had to jet straight back for my friend Tristan’s wedding. That was a lovely, lovely day.
I was very pleased a month before the conference to be asked back to Sonya Feldhoff’s Afternoons program on 891 ABC Adelaide, which as of 2017 is known as ABC Adelaide. Last time I was on, we discussed empathy. This time, we spoke about social psychology topics I’ve always enjoyed teaching: first impressions (and the errors made in forming them, because we psychologists always accentuate the negatives), schemas, attributions, and self-fulfilling prophecies. We got to cover a lot of ground. I enjoyed mentioning some of the names psychologists gave to their discoveries. Terms like the fundamental attribution error, the primacy effect, and the what is beautiful is good stereotype. I spoke about Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson’s work investigating what happens when teachers are led to believe certain students will “bloom” in the coming year. I only wish I’d mentioned the name of their book, Pygmalion in the Classroom. Aren’t psychologists the best with titles? If you’d like to listen, the recording can be found here. Just a couple of weeks later, I was a guest by phone to discuss whether empathy should be taught in schools. These are all topics I want to address more this year in my blog. For now, suffice to say that I believe more empathy is always a good thing.
In 2017, I look forward to completing and publishing more interviews. I’ve been researching in depth a long-term project, which has meant lots of interviews but not for this blog. However, I have also been researching interview subjects whom I hope to chat with early in the year for this space. My research has involved lots of reading; as well as watching of movies and TV shows that span 30 years (and this is for one interviewee), and even getting some old VHS transferred to DVD for the process. I actually bought a VCR for my grandfather for Christmas. On that topic, I’d like to write about videos and my love affair with them, too.
Most of all, I want to continue to write about the light and the heavy. It is a changing world. Of course, it always has been (you mean, they didn’t have the Prius during the Enlightenment?). But so many people seem disheartened, disillusioned, and in despair. For me, I want to write about what psychology can tell us about, and how perhaps it can help us navigate, such times. Recently, I was chatting a little with Sherilyn Fenn on Twitter (how cool is Twitter that it allows me to do that – and months before the new Twin Peaks?). We mentioned the “noise” that can come from online interaction. I want to write about that. In particular, I’d like to address something I’ve grappled with regarding online communication: whether we should “fight” with those we don’t know, but who have such diametrically opposed attitudes to our own. For some fun, I’m also thinking of a piece that takes a developmental psychology focus to young people’s adoring online fans.
Before I sign off, I’d like to remember here Francine York. She helped me with a project I am currently working on, and in 2014 she participated in a post for the blog where I asked some special people, “What three items would you want to have with you if you were stuck on a desert island?” Read her response – it’s all Francine! Francine loved being a part of Hollywood, worked for over 50 years, was always glamorous and picture perfect, and was such a force of nature. I think that’s why I was shocked to find out she had passed away. It’s hard to believe she’s gone.
Tonight, I’m staying in. I might watch a film. Or maybe I’ll finally sit down to a BBC Bette Midler documentary I’ve been meaning to watch. I’ve been so busy since returning to work that the last thing I watched was President Obama’s farewell speech streamed live from Chicago. I want to write a little about that later. I will say that I loved that the applause from the crowd sounded and felt like it would shatter my headphones.
Until then, I want to leave you with a quote from Benjamin Franklin, which is verified as coming from his work. You must check these things. After all, based on all the quotes attributed to her, you get the impression Marilyn Monroe never shut up.
“Be at War with your Vices, at Peace with your Neighbours, and let every New-Year find you a better Man”.
The Franklin tome in which it appeared was titled Poor Richard improved: Being an almanack and ephemeris of the motions of the sun and moon; the true places and aspects of the planets; the rising and setting of the sun; and the rising, setting and southing of the moon, for the year of our Lord 1758… it goes on. Wow, that’s quite a title. Franklin was many things, but a psychologist he was not. I like that title though because it does say something about change, continuity, and the eternal nature of things even in an uncertain world.
As an aside, I’ve read that a version of panettone may have existed at the time of the Roman Empire. Now that’s Eternal.
I was listening for the first time to a CD of mindfulness exercises. Focusing on my chest rising and falling with each breath, I was thrown off when the stereo abruptly switched off. My approach to life when trying new things is to diligently follow directions. Before using another brand of laundry detergent, for example, I read the back label of the bottle just in case they advise of a new and daring way to do laundry. Without my new facilitator telling me how to continue, I panicked. What should I do? Do I keep breathing?
Within a few minutes, it became apparent that most of South Australia and its population of approximately 1.7 million had been plunged into darkness; a blackout that mercifully would last only a few hours for those of us in the Adelaide metropolitan areas, but considerably longer in some of the outer suburbs and farther reaches of the state.
I was lucky that I had chosen to work from home that day (September 28, 2016). Many had to brave roads slippery from the severe storm that was in full swing with no working traffic lights. I’ve written before about my theory that Adelaide experiences a type of Gremlins effect when it rains. But, from what I heard, motorists were cautious and courteous on their ways home.
I don’t remember experiencing a lengthy blackout since I was a kid. Those ones seemed to come in summer. Families would walk the neighbourhood trying to get some respite from the heat inside the house; the grownups would check with neighbours to make sure that their house, and their house alone, wasn’t Ground Zero; and the children would excitedly use the torches that were regularly checked and stored securely for such events.
Since then, I’d read about and romanticised another blackout that occurred halfway across the world: he Northeast blackout that blanketed New York and surrounding states (and Ontario, Canada) in 1965. Films and TV series had used this event as a backdrop or inspiration. Doris Day, Robert Morse, and Terry-Thomas got into all sorts of trouble in Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? In Bewitched it was Aunt Clara who was responsible for such chaos. Goldie Hawn, then a young dancer, writes evocatively in her memoir, A Lotus Grows in the Mud, of how friends and neighbours made their way to her apartment at 888 Eighth Avenue on the night of 9 November:
We run around and light the candles as more and more friends arrive on our doorstep. “Okay, I guess the party’s at our house!” I laugh as I bring some glasses in from the kitchen.
“Well, you’re the only people we know who live in a three-story walk-up!” Eddie cries, holding up a bottle of scotch as he waltzes in.
We finish lighting the candles, relishing their flickering light. Someone strums on a guitar and another rolls a joint. My front door is wide open, and, suddenly, standing there are the two guys I met in the dry cleaner’s earlier this morning.
Goldie had been disheartened by her New York experiences and was of leaving the city. After the Northeast blackout, however, she was poised to give it another go. In reflecting on November 9, she concluded: “This one night became, for me, the epitome of the flower-power, peace-and-love days of the sixties. No one slept. Everybody loved each other; strangers made friends with strangers, and we had the wildest, funniest, most romantic night”.
Using Twitter and Facebook sparingly to conserve battery power to stay in contact with the world, I got the distinct impression that South Australia wasn’t experiencing so much peace, love, and understanding, as it was peace, love, and lording it over friends and associates. The state was quickly divided into the haves and have-nots. Those with gas stoves and matches fared much better than those of us with electric hotplates. Others had their camp lights and torches fully charged, and fridges and pantries stocked with staples or prime cuts of meat. Some even unwrapped previously-gifted Glasshouse candles so that they could make their way around their houses – or, if the worse happened and they walked straight into a door, they’d be transported to the evocative Amalfi Coast, glamorous Manhattan, or even the Galapagos as they drifted slowly in and out of consciousness. One friend announced in a group message that “We’re making tacos on the stove … and having a sleepout in the living room … and spending time with the children!” Another friend was trying a new recipe; yet another was fixing a gourmet BBQ.
Of course, I’m sure no one was deliberately rubbing it in what they presumed, in the dim, was my face. But it’s like when you’re single and everyone else is in a relationship. You peer out your window and, in quick succession, see a man reciting a sonnet to a fair maiden, lovers running in the meadows, dogs sharing spaghetti, and trains going through tunnels. Of course, if this is the case, you shouldn’t be looking for a partner so much as wondering, Where did I just move?
We were squarely in the have-not, Blair Witch-style camp. We’d been so busy during the week that, for the first time I can remember, the cupboard was pretty much bare (“Tarragon, anyone?”). Our torches and camp light were also flat, and our BBQ was not under cover and, therefore, it was not really feasible to use it in the rain. Even our cars were low on fuel, and so driving around to find a delicatessen on a lowly dark road seemed too risky.
Despite being bored and largely in the dark, I attempted to put into practice some of my mindfulness exercises. I accepted what was and stayed in the moment. I fumbled around in boxes and found a few tealight candles. Hungry and tired, Bob and I settled on a bottle of Amaretto and the rest of the pistachio ice-cream in the back of the fridge. One of the laptops mercifully had enough battery power for a few episodes of The Muppets. We joked that there was going to be a spike in pregnancies that could be traced back to this very night.
Like many others, I had always assumed that the Northeast blackout had led to a certain type of activity when the lights went out. Reports from August, 1966 in The New York Times are often cited, where it was reported that “a sharp increase in births” had occurred in several hospitals in areas where the blackout had hit about nine months earlier, but not in areas minimally or unaffected by the power outage, or locations where “many of whose commuters were stranded in the city”. Good to see those train passengers were well-behaved. Experts asked to speculate on why there may have been increased amorous activity suggested that “substitutes for sex … were eliminated that night”. And what were those substitutes? These included “meetings, lectures, card parties, theaters, [and] saloons”. Others suggested it may have been the result of couples not having “access to a major source of amusement” – television, that is; and in some cases, “people may have had trouble finding their accustomed contraceptives”. A lesson for not keeping too many things in the bedside table if ever there was one.
In a study published in Demography a mere five years after the blackout, J. Richard Udry examined New York City birth numbers for the period June 27-August 15 (chosen based on gestational ages of birth data) for 1961-1966, with 1966 of course being the expected year of arrival of these “blackout babies”. Based on several analyses, Professor Udry stated “We … cannot conclude from the data presented here that the great blackout of 1965 produced any significant increase (or decrease) in the number of conceptions”. Professor Udry believed that that our wanting to think a blackout or other weather event could lead to an increase in birth rates was because “It is evidently pleasing to many people to fantasy that when people are trapped by some immobilizing event which deprives them of their usual activities, most will turn to copulation”. Gracious, I may faint – pass me some smelling salts or that Galapagos candle. I’m surprised this study hasn’t been cited more extensively to debunk this 50-year myth. Sometimes, I guess we like to maintain the fantasy.
Drunk and pre-diabetic, bed time came early. I flicked a couple of light switches so that I’d be aware when the power finally came back on. Lying there in bed, I thought about the day. Goldie’s experience led her to realise “When we strip away the things that seem important and go back to the basics, we discover that all we really have is each other”. I agree wholeheartedly, but this blackout also made me consider our arrogance. We often think we’ve bested Mother Nature. It takes something like this to realise that in one foul swoop, she says, “We’ll see about that”.
I awoke with a startle when the hall lights came on sometime before midnight, and the washing machine starting gurgling. Turns out I had it going during my breathing exercises, but had tuned it out. Perhaps I’m coming around to the principles of mindfulness.
You’re probably wondering, Did I use a new and daring washing detergent? Of course not. Change doesn’t happen all at once.
Screencaps for The Simpsons episode “Lisa the Tree Hugger” via Frinkiac.
“Eventually man, too, found his way back to the sea. Standing on its shores, he must have looked out upon it with wonder and curiosity, compounded with an unconscious recognition of his lineage. He could not physically re-enter the ocean as the seals and whales had done. But over the centuries, with all the skill and ingenuity and reasoning powers of his mind, he has sought to explore and investigate even its most remote parts, so that he might re-enter it mentally and imaginatively … Moving in fascination over the deep sea he could not enter, he found ways to probe its depths, he let down nets to capture its life, he invented mechanical eyes and ears that could re-create for his sense a world long lost, but a world that, in the deepest part of his subconscious mind, he had never wholly forgotten”.
Water and sunsets – are there any two other things that are so consistently awe-inspiring? In the past year since moving house, I have seen many beautiful sunsets from my front lawn. However, we don’t live close to water, and I don’t think that there is anything better than a sunset experienced on the beach. A few weeks ago we decided to be spontaneous and drive down to the beach for a relaxed dinner. It seems counterintuitive to me to write that we “decided” to be spontaneous. I’m reminded of Maude Flanders (from The Simpsons) going away to Bible Camp to learn to be more judgemental. Certainly, ours wasn’t entirely a spontaneous decision. We had agreed that we would leave Saturday open and see what we’d like to do, but the beach had been thrown around along with my suggestion that I lie on the couch for the evening and bemoan the fact that the wine bar Bin 273 on Rundle Street would be a perfect place to go; had it not closed years ago and become a Thai restaurant and then an upscale boutique. Every so often I like to let a night take you where it will, but I also derive comfort from at least having a rough skeleton or starting point. That’s why, on the way there, I kept debating internally – and much to Bob’s mild annoyance, externally – whether or not I should ring the Largs Pier Hotel for a booking. I didn’t, and we were lucky to get a table. This put me on edge. However, after dinner when we could walk on the beach, the ball of nerves that is a considerable part of my day-to-day experience receded from the shore.
There is a lot to be said for spontaneity and trusting one’s decisions. In a five-part series (see, I told you) of articles for Psychology Today, Leon F. Seltzer writes that spontaneity is likely linked to the psychological concepts as mindfulness (being in the present moment) and the immersion that comes from the mental state known as flow, which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described as “joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life”. Marine biologist and researcher Wallace J. Nichols would suggest that one of the best places to facilitate a mindful state is by water. Dr. Nichols came up with the concept of Blue Mind, which he sees as “a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment”. He believes that “it is inspired by water and elements associated with water, from the color blue to the words we use to describe the sensations associated with immersion. It takes advantage of neurological connections formed over millennia, many such brain patterns and preferences being discovered only now, thanks to innovative scientists and cutting-edge technology”. So, perhaps without realising it, my decision to be spontaneous at the beach wasn’t a bad choice after all. Plus, we got to see whales swimming not ten metres from where we walked on the sand; and cute puppies walking the beach with their companions.
Of course, spontaneity need not be only achieved at the beach. From what I’ve read, spontaneity is a bit like a muscle that should be exercised. That isn’t always easy. Funnily enough when I started to draft this post, my friend Madeleine texted me to ask us to lunch the following day. We already had plans. She understood, and told me that she was just trying to be spontaneous. I appreciated her effort because I increasingly find that by the time I’ve come up with a list of people I’d like to catch up with because it’s been to long, or things I’d like – or feel I have – to do, there isn’t really much room for spontaneity. However, last Sunday, after successfully mounting an internal case (Perry Mason would have been proud) for not going to the gym to face the dreaded rowing machine, we were at a loose end when an afternoon birthday party was cancelled. I suggested that we see a movie, and so we looked up the listings and decided on Hail, Caesar! The film wasn’t on until seven o’clock, which left us with a few hours. On a whim, we texted our friend, Beth, and asked her out for a drinks at a nearby pub. Good conversation over beers followed: now that can be flow, as Professor Csikszentmihalyi would agree.
I’m glad we acted on a whim to catch up with Beth, and then to see the film. Hail, Caesar! was a delightful wink to the studio system and a Hollywood of time’s passed with the inimitable touch of the Coen brothers. Film aficionados will enjoy spotting the inspiration for various characters, subplots, and flicks made by the fictional Capitol Pictures. I thought Alden Ehrenreich, an actor I was not familiar with, was excellent as the studio’s oater star, Hobie Doyle; and that Channing Tatum as a song-and-dance man was a revelation, at least to me. There are treatments of faith, Communism, and moral ambiguity, but I’ll avoid spoilers for the recently-released film. Also, there would be a lot of ground to cover, and while I’d like to explain to you the many intertwined stories, to take the words of Hobie, “Would that it twere so simple”. The Palace Nova Eastend cinemas also offer wine in three pouring sizes: standard, feature length, and epic. The actual film runs a little over 1 hour 40 minutes, but the film within the film is an epic, so, you know…I don’t think anyone will judge you for getting the epic-size option.
In preparing to write this article, I started to wonder if spontaneity or doing something on a whim is related to the personality dimension openness to experience. Robert R. McCrae and Paul T. Costa, Jr. are very well-known for their work on the Five-Factor Model of Personality, with openness to experience one of the five traits, along with conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Two acronyms that I wish I had learnt years ago to aid remembering these traits are OCEAN and CANOE. Aren’t they really too perfect for the point I’m trying to make here? Interestingly, I came across the notion of aesthetic chills, defined by Professor McCrae as “transient emotional responses to music or other experiences of beauty”, and which are strongly associated to openness to experience. Avram Goldstein published some early work on chills in 1980. He called them “thrills”, perhaps because this was the ‘80s and in the era of Reagan everyone was looking for a few. In that work, commonly reported stimuli that caused thrills were great beauty in nature or art, as well as musical passages (the most frequently endorsed); scenes from movies, plays, ballets, or books; physical contact with another person; climatic moments in opera, sexual activity; and nostalgic moments. One of the stimuli that endorsed less frequently by participants was parades. I understand – unless the parade is being preceded by “raining on someone’s”, I’m not usually that moved. I’ve probably had more than my share of chills from sunsets and water. Perhaps they come from that feeling of anticipation and that anything is possible, which I have found comes from looking at an infinite ocean, listening to a great piece of music (in fact, that anticipation and possibility is how I described Teddy Geiger’s album The Last Fearsalmost three years ago), good conversation over moreish food and drink, or a spontaneous day of activities. Where better to get the chills than at the beach? Perhaps avoid recreating that roll in the waves by Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity. I imagine you’d end up with sand everywhere.
The pictures in this post are from my night at the beach. If you do decide to use them elsewhere, you may attribute the sunsets and water to God and/or science, but please credit the capturing of those moments to me.
I’m sad to write that Ken Delo, one half of the comedy duo Delo & Daly, passed away in early February. If you were in Australia in the early ‘60s, Americans Ken and Jonathan Daly were among the biggest stars on TV. They arrived in 1960 and began appearing on GTV-9’s In Melbourne Tonight and The Graham Kennedy Show. Delo and Daly also had their own specials sponsored by Shell, Heinz, and other companies, which led to interesting titles like In the Soup; in fact, their Australian TV debut was on The BP Super Show. Eventually, Ken and Jonathan had their own series, The Delo & Daly Show on HSV-7. Ken and Jonathan’s shows and specials aired nationally, and so they were truly among the first stars of the burgeoning medium.
Delo & Daly were also very successful on the nightclub scene all over Australia, with a legendary stay at the Savoy Plaza on Little Collins Street (it’s still there; I stayed at the now Vibe Savoy in October last year), as well as appearances at Chequers and Lennons Broadbeach Hotel (sadly, neither remains, although I believe the building for the first is still on Goulburn Street in Sydney).
After the team returned stateside in 1964, Jonathan went on to appear on Bewitched, Petticoat Junction, and a raft of other series and movies, while Ken had a long, successful run on The Lawrence Welk Show. In recent years, he wrote a science fiction-horror novel, The Frozen Horror, and the heartwarming, The Ugly Little Christmas Tree.
I interviewed Jonathan last year for a retrospective of his career. I was hoping to do the same with Ken.
During my preparation for Jonathan’s interview, I had the pure joy of watching several of Ken and Jon’s The Delo & Daly Show episodes held by the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra, and sent over to Adelaide for me to view at the State Library of South Australia. In glorious black and white, I got to watch Ken and Jonathan perform in fast-paced comedy sketches and parodies, the extended regular segment “Let’s Talk”, duet on popular songs, of which “Teamwork” was naturally one, and enjoy themselves as much as the audience.
Ken was a beautiful singer, and as Jonathan told me “a masterful straight man” in their double act. When Ken started one of his many solo performances and I heard those distinct lines, “The loveliness of Paris seems somehow sadly gay/The glory that was Rome is of another day”, I got chills. Who hasn’t left their heart in San Francisco?
From all accounts Ken was a very lovely man, loving husband to Marilyn and loving father to their two children, and a friend of Jonathan’s until the end. Ken left an indelible mark on television in this country. Perhaps his words when describingThe Ugly Little Christmas Tree reflected his philosophy for life where, “The story proves that in the right place, at the right time, and if you go for it, you can succeed”. When I was in Melbourne late last year, and right in the middle of writing my article, I imagined the Melbourne of another time, with Ken and Jonathan rehearsing at the HSV-7 Teletheatre on Johnson Street in Fitzroy, or writing together at the flat they shared in Toorak down the road from where the famous nightclub The Embers once stood.
Thank you, Ken, for making sweet music and timeless comedy.
With thanks to Jon Daly. Susie Gamble, who provided many of the photos for this post, runs a Facebook Group devoted to The Go!! Show, a production of D.Y.T., which was also responsible for Ken and Jonathan’s Channel 7 shows.
Can I still say Happy New Year in February? I’ve certainly found myself saying it to rather tanned people who have just returned from extended holidays. I only took one more week leave than usual, but I enjoyed this extra time off from work; especially since Bob and our friend, Mark, also had holidays. It was fun to have a friend from Brazil, Thiago, visit us. Visitors from overseas give you the chance to become unofficial ambassadors of your city or state. You may even visit for the first time attractions or parts of the city that hitherto were not on your radar. I find that I talk up random bridges (“Ooo, look a lovely bridge!”), gardens (“Ahh, a splendid garden!”), and even statues (“Look, it’s…well, actually I don’t know who the hell that is. But look, he’s near a lovely bridge”). There were also several Christmas newborns to meet, beaches to walk, and a helpful, if somewhat judgemental, Netflix offering me a long list of potential film and TV options based on previous viewing.
Bob and I tried a lot of the lunch bars and cafés that have sprung up all over the city, but are only open during the day. This endeavour got off to a shaky start when the two of us and our friend, Carlo, eagerly joined a line outside of one eatery. Our frustration at being told that it was hard to say how long the wait would be because “people eat food at different speeds” eventually gave way to bemusement when we noticed that people were sneaking past the confused waiting staff to sit at recently-vacated tables. Felled by this culinary war of attrition, fought with retro knives and forks, we retreated and ended up at a fast-food Mexican joint.
Even when keeping busy, the end of one year and beginning of another is often a time for self-reflection. Psychologists Shelley Duval and Robert A. Wicklund proposed in their 1972 book, A theory of objective self awareness (New York, Academic Press), that while attention can be directed inward or outward at any given time, we’re usually more outward focused because “the environment is normally a strong enough stimulus to draw attention to itself”. To put it another way, we’re the “subject” of our existence and everything and everyone else is an “object”. Please don’t take this explanation to mean that I’m objectifying you all; and frankly, on more than one occasion, I’ve made enough of a spectacle of myself to warrant your scrutiny. In psychology studies stemming from this theory, mirrors or recording people on film and then playing the tape back to them are often used to move a participant’s attention from the environment to himself or herself. I think a new year is just as effective a prompt for looking inward.
While I’ve never really been one for New Year’s resolutions, I am not immune to the focused self-reflection that comes with this time of year. Or any time of the year, really. You want to talk about me in August? I’m your navel-gazing man. What is it about the impending start of a new year that drives self-reflection, and the want to end or begin chapters? I suppose we think in terms of beginning-middle-end with many things, and years are no different. We reflect on what we did, what we haven’t done, and what we’d like to do in the future. More than anything, though, I think that a new year is such an alluring prospect for many people because of the promise it offers of putting a line in the sand; of breaking away from self-imposed boundaries, or the boundaries that we allow others to put around us. No one likes being put in a box. And yet, we have mental containers for everything.
One of the first topics I teach when introducing social psychology to undergraduates is the concept of schemas. It was one of the first social psychology topics I probably learned from my own lecturers: Lyn Leaney, Brian Gerner, and others; as well as texts such as Social psychology (Pearson/Allyn & Bacon) by Robert A. Baron, Donn Byrne, and Nyla R. Branscombe. Schemas are structures that organize our knowledge and assumptions about something (e.g. situation, person, social role), and are used for interpreting and processing information. For example, when we visit a restaurant we expect to wait for a table, to be seated, to be given a menu and a few minutes to choose an order, and so on. We are also likely to have schemas that organize our knowledge and assumptions about doctors’ visits, sitting in a library, shopping, and so on (these are event schemas or scripts). These schemas not only help us to know what to expect, but also direct our behaviours in these situations. We have schemas for ourselves, other people we know, “types” of people (the prototypical waiter, doctor, and librarian), occupations, social roles, specific social groups…you name it, we are a virtual Howard’s Storage World.
Schemas make life easier. They tell us what to look for or how to size up a situation or another person. But they can cause problems for that very reason because they don’t give anyone much wiggle room. Our impressions of others, in particular, are likely to persevere. Boxes by their very nature can store a lot of baggage. It reminds me of the LGBT metaphor of the closet being for clothes, and not for people. I agree with that wholeheartedly, unless it’s an Ikea closet; in which case, it can be used for clothes storage and to cause major rifts in any solid relationship, as you scream, “Why have we only got six of those screws? Oh, we’ll never put this KVIKNE together!”
We started watching Sensitive Skin starring Kim Cattrall and Don McKellar on Netflix in late December. In fact, we couldn’t wait and squeezed in watching the final episode of the first season before heading to a New Year’s Eve party. This television show really spoke to my point. Kim plays Davina, a former model who works part-time at a gallery. Davina is trying to figure out who she is, and grappling with whether you can make big changes in your life. I loved what the series said about the drift of life leading you a certain way versus going out and trying to get what you want; or at least trying to figure that out. Davina’s dilemma is really how to be free of both the gaze of others and their reflected expectations, and to be honest with herself about whom she is and what she wants so that she can act on it. In one episode, Davina tells her neurotic writer husband Al something that she’ll come to realise relates to her as well: “You’ve got a perfectly good brain, but it’s blind. It’s full of nerves and doubts and fear … Just be the Al you want to be, and you’ll be him”.
Perhaps Davina doesn’t fully realise the parallels with her own situation, but she is right about Al. Psychology research tells us we often infer who we are and how we feel by what we do. But this intense soul searching to figure out who exactly we are can be difficult. Duval and Wicklund believe that self-directed attention can result in negative emotions if we find our behaviours and other parts of our self fall short of our own standards. When we experience negative pangs as a result of discrepancy, we may try to change our behaviours to fit with our standards. This may play out in the push to shed a few kilos, an unsatisfying job, or a relationship; give up smoking; travel; or perhaps – if there was a video camera at the New Year’s Eve party – not to ever fall into the punch bowl again. We may also come up with new standards, or avoid self-reflection all together. Psychologists would say that humans are rather averse to adverse emotions, and so it’s understandable why we may choose the final option.
I’ve found that at times of self-imposed or externally-driven self attention, my conception of who I want to be or who I see myself as is not exactly where I would like it. My tendency, like many other people, is to feel shame, and avoid that painful mirror. Or, I lure myself into that false sense that I have achieved a homeostasis in personality and evolved to an end-point where, I’m not that person anymore. But if I did make a New Year’s resolution in recent years, it was to be more honest with myself and try to figure out what I really wanted. On my navel gazing this year, I found that I was closer to where I wanted to be, and there didn’t have to be such an upheaval of self-concept. I think that is in big part due to this blog. Anytime I feel in a box, I find writing helps me to shake it off. Writing is a very satisfying creative outlet for me, as well as a way to figure out exactly what it is I’m thinking.
I would like to thank my 2015 interviewees: Gavin Harrison, Patricia Florio, and Jonathan Daly. They gave freely of their time and really did what I have written about. Self-reflection can be challenging, difficult, fun, and a whole range of other things. I appreciate the effort they put into it. I hope that it was as useful to them as it was to me. I would also like to thank Bobby Vee and his family for support of my writing about their family in my If I Needed You post; and those who participated in my Sunday, You’re Looking Neat in Your Tidy Attire Q&A: Rutanya Alda, Simone Buchanan, Gabrielle Carteris, Cazwell, Tim Ferguson, Tim Matheson, Breckin Meyer, Lucas Neff, Chris Noel, Tatum O’Neal, and Billy Warlock.
I’m working on a couple of new projects and look forward to sharing them with all of you when I can.
Sometimes I write all day or even over an entire weekend. I love being in that type of flow. However, I find that I can start to act just a little bit bizarre and need some actual human interaction. I found this to be the case a couple of weeks ago, and was pleased that Bob, our friends Julie and Carlo, and I choose to go to one of our favourite pubs known for its friendly atmosphere and extensive beer list. We listened to a lovely singer perform original pieces and covers. One of her originals was about an elderly man. After the song, she intimated that she may be killing him off in a sequel unless the audience had other ideas. Buoyed by courage (and probably our tab at the bar), a sense of duty compelled me to fish for a stay of execution for her fictional protagonist. At the end of the singer’s set, I excitedly went up to her and offered, “Perhaps…he could go to Europe!” She was very sweet, but I sensed that she was thinking, He has two Hefeweizen, and all of a sudden he thinks he’s Carole King.
In writing this, I decided to return to one of my favourite theorists: Gordon W. Allport. I considered his trait theory at length for one course I completed in my first year as an undergraduate. In his 1955 book, Becoming: Basic Considerations for a Psychology of Personality (New Haven, Yale University Press), he wrote, “there is also much growth that takes place only with the aid of, and because of, a self image. This image helps us bring our view of the present into line with our view of the future”. I guess what I take away from all this New Year reflection is strive to be who you want to be. You just can’t be Carole King – that’s already taken.
I’ve loved Bobby Vee’s music for as long as I can remember. If I had written that opening sentence without the word “music”, and maybe referred to his dreamy hazel eyes, it could just as likely have appeared in an article from 16 or Teen Screen in 1961 when Bobby was firmly in teen idol territory. What started for me as an affinity with his early ‘60’s songs like “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” and “Rubber Ball”, both mainstays on Saturday Night Jukebox-type radio shows when I was a kid in the ‘80s-‘90s, grew over the years and he is probably my favourite male singer who started a career at that time. I emphasise started because while he may be best known for the almost 40 Billboard Hot 100 chart hits that he had from 1959-1970, he never really stopped recording and performing. Along the way, Bobby became a legend.
Another Bob was actually the impetus for my writing about Bobby Vee. Well, not technically a Bob. Bob Evans is the name singer-songwriter Kevin Mitchell uses for his solo work. But I’m sure Mr. Vee will forgive me. After all, he was born Robert Velline, just as Italian-Americans Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell weren’t born with those names; and Fabian and Dion did once have surnames! In Bobby Vee’s case his lineage is Scandinavian (Norwegian on dad’s side, Finnish on mom’s). I heard the song “Sitting in the Waiting Room” performed live at Kevin/Bob’s April 2013 Adelaide show, and again shortly after on the beautiful and lush album from which it came, Familiar Stranger. In “Sitting in the Waiting Room”, Kevin sets the scene of a doctor’s office where a man and woman, most probably a couple, are passing time waiting to be seen. He is watching TV and she is reading magazines that, while he doesn’t say it, I imagine being out-of-date and well worn. The female protagonist is likely picturing all the sick people who have read those magazines and just knows that she’s going to catch something. Maybe that’s just me. It is a scene we are all familiar with, one where those nursing colds, sporting injuries or just needing general check-ups sit quietly alongside those awaiting potentially life-changing news. The problem of this pair doesn’t seem to fit the first category, and it may or may not fit the second. They are scared and apprehensive; as he puts it, “And I don’t have the words to make it right”.
Eventually they are with the doctor, and while she talks, he is silent, all “helplessness and fear”. The couple eventually emerge from the office and exit back through the waiting room. He comes to realise it is not words she needs, but someone to be there in times like this when you have no choice but to “let the unknown forces take control”. We don’t know the outcome of their visit: “Walking out the waiting room/My eyes are white, the skies still blue/Now there’s other stuff to do”. Life goes on; even it has seemingly changed in an instant. Besides the big things to think about, there are still the little things.
I thought a lot about this song as I prepared to listen to an album by Bobby Vee, The Adobe Sessions, released in February 2014. Yes, it’s September 2015 and this is long overdue. I had heard about the album, but for some reason I had missed a post on Bobby’s blog from April 2012. In the letter from Bobby and his family, he began, “As my buddy Fabian says, getting old is not for the meek. I think he may be right. A little over a year ago I was diagnosed with the mild stages of Alzheimer’s disease”.
I don’t really know the Vellines, although we’ve had some interaction online and I’ve found them to always be friendly. I was even able to send Bobby a card. But it was the image Kevin Mitchell painted that came to mind when I read Mr. Vee’s letter to his friends and fans. Later Tommy Vee, Bobby’s son, said, “We were all in the room when they gave the diagnosis and it was a devastating thing to sit and hear that”. Bobby comes from a generation of musicians that are much more accessible to their fans, but it would have been understandable if the Vellines chose not to disclose the diagnosis. Son Jeff wrote in an article for the magazine Care ADvantage in spring 2014, “For 50+ years, Dad had bared his heart on a stage night after night: ‘Here I am; this is what you get’. He ultimately reminded us of this when he chose to go public with his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease in 2012: ‘Look, here I am, this is still me… I am here!’” Jeff continued that his father “was resolved about going public—he knew what was best. It was an act of grace and courage”. And, in his father’s words, “You work with what you got”.
I have had very little direct experience of dementia. I think those of us who haven’t cannot really understand, although we can of course empathise at some very general level. Most important, though, we can listen to those who are experts by experience: the families of those with dementia and, perhaps more importantly, the people with dementia themselves. Since being diagnosed, Bobby himself said in his letter, “This past year has truly been life taking its own course without words that can describe the mystery and conflict that none of us can know. So without a song or a script I am stepping onto a stage that we all share: The mystery of life”.
When Bobby received his diagnosis, the family set out on a road trip from their home in Minnesota to Tucson where Bobby and his wife Karen had built a hacienda. It was father, mother, sons and daughter, as well as the grandchildren. As Bobby wrote, “Together we explored the depths of our reality… the depths of my reality. With very few words, no solutions and a lot of heart, we did what we do. We shared time. We shared laughter, tears, stories, meals and music. We shared thousands of miles of hi-way as familiar to us as the pillows on our beds. As if nothing had changed, as if everything had changed… simultaneously”. From the garage, Bobby described in the album liner notes, “mud adobe walls still radiating warmth from the days’ desert sun”, the Vellines did what they had always done: they made music. As Bobby wrote “We made music every day for a week… just for us. For the joy of making music. For the joy of being together. For all of the reasons I ever picked up a guitar or sang a tune in a Fargo, ND garage back in ’59. I have truly come full circle!”
Besides making new memories, I am sure that Bobby’s mind wandered to his more than five decades in music. He was a 15-year old in Fargo, North Dakota desperate to join his brother Bill and Bill’s pals, Jim Stillman and Bob Korum, during their jam sessions: “I played saxophone in the high school band … but I wanted to rock out.” Bill eventually relented and Bobby could tag along with his brother, “if I would promise to keep quiet”. I had a good laugh recently when I was looking through some old newspaper articles detailing Bobby’s early years in music. One paper recounted a version of this story, with the more colourful description that Bobby was allowed “to sit in during practice sessions with the proviso that he would ‘shut up’”. Underneath a beaming photo of Bobby is the caption, “Bobby Vee … He didn’t ‘Shut Up’ …” (Cedar Rapids Gazette, August 7, 1966). I’m glad he didn’t. Besides enthusiasm and $30 Harmony guitar, Bobby had an ace up his sleeve: he knew the lyrics to the songs the guys played.
In an often-told story, and one Bobby has been asked to recount many, many times, it was the deaths of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, The Big Bopper, and pilot Roger Peterson en route to Moorhead, Minnesota via Fargo that led to Bobby’s debut. The young men on that flight weren’t much older than Bobby, Bill, Bob, and Dick Dunkirk (replacing Jim Stillman). There was a call for local talent to fill in at the Moorhead Armory show that the three musicians would never attend. As recounted at The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll website, “The boys [Bobby and the band] had three hours to come up with an act. They knew six songs maybe. After the quick rehearsal, on the way to the armory, they stopped at J.C. Penney’s and bought black peg pants with tight cuffs and sleeveless sweaters accented with angora ties”. It was at the event, Bobby recalled a few years later in the liner notes to his 1963 LP I Remember Buddy Holly, “We hadn’t even named the group up to that time, so we gave ourselves a name on the spot, calling ourselves ‘The Shadows’”. Until then, in Bobby’s words, “I was the lead singer … of Fargo’s first nameless garage band”. While the show that night started Bobby’s career, had he not performed that night, I can’t imagine that Bobby Vee wouldn’t have been ‘discovered’ elsewhere. No matter what, he would have become a star.
Shows around the traps, their first paying gig on a makeshift stage, which half-way through the show came apart, were a prelude to the worldwide travel Bobby would be doing within a couple of years. In the liner notes to The Essential and Collectable Bobby Vee (1998), Bobby begins his story with, “The date was June 1, 1959 and I was barely 16 when I recorded my first record, ‘Suzie Baby’, at the Kaybank Studio in Minneapolis, MN. By September it was #1 in the upper Midwest and I signed my first recording contract with Liberty Records”. Maury Dean, in his book Rock ‘n’ Roll Gold Rush, described “Suzie Baby” as “not just a good record – it is a great record”. When I listen to that record some 55 years after it was recorded, Bobby and his band absolutely kill me.
After “Suzie Baby”, a hit with B-side “Devil or Angel” in 1960, after a couple of misses, led to Bobby’s initial five-year contract with Liberty. God bless the B-sides! At Liberty, it was with company founder Si Waronker’s “love of music and steadfast desire to create quality product he placed 21 year old Snuff Garrett in charge of A&R production and with Snuff’s seemingly endless string of hit records Si’s dream became a reality. Liberty Records became one of the most successful record companies of the sixties and very happily, it became my musical home for over fifteen years” (The Essential and Collectable Bobby Vee liner notes). I am familiar with Si Waronker’s work through my friend, Donna Loren, who was married to Si’s son, Warner Bros. Records president Lenny Waronker. In fact, Donna and Lenny’s son Joey played drums on Bob Evans’ Familiar Stranger.
In his songs, Bobby often dealt with lost love, two timing girls, and even best pals who end up with his girl. In one song, Bobby gets “A Letter from Betty”. Sounds innocuous? He opens that letter: “She said, dear, Bobby/Just a line to say hello/We’ve been such good friends/You should be the first to know/I fell in love/My dreams have all come true/And, Bobby, he’s so much like you”. Like what?! The listener often wonders how someone so good can put up with all of this. When Bobby sings the first few lines to “Punish Her” and comes to “Punish her, kill her”, you’re likely to spit out your soda from the Malt shop. Until, of course, he finishes this advice to punish and kill her “with kindness”. That’s our Bobby!
While Bobby may seem a pushover in some of the songs – he even refers to himself as being like a “Rubber Ball” – I like to think he knows his worth. Through it all, Bobby can only wish these girls well and hope that if they only realise what fools they’ve been, they’ll return. “Run to Him”, a song in this vein by Gerry Goffin and Jack Keller, reached #2 on the Billboard chart. I think the public kind of liked it when Bobby misbehaved just a little to give some back to the Suzies, Barbaras, Bettys, and Robins. On his #1 “Take Good Care of My Baby” by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Bobby’s lost the girl because he was untrue; but he hopes he’ll win her back. And on his #3 “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” (Weisman-Wayne-Garrett), where he suspects his girl of being a “run-around lover” he mischievously eludes to the fact that two could play at that game. Of course, he wouldn’t, but you know…
Some of my other Bobby favourites are “More Than I Can Say” by Sonny Curtis and Jerry Allison, “It Might as Well Rain Until September” again by Goffin and King (where Bobby has the girl, but she is away), and the later beautiful “No Obligations” by K. Walker. I say later, but Bobby would have only been around 26!
What to make of this good guy persona? It seems to have been pretty close to reality. In articles from the ‘60s, Bobby was described as “handsome, shy, young” (The Emmetsburg Democrat, July 13, 1961, p. 3) and “soft-spoken” (The Lima News, August 8, 1963, p. 17). In an article in the Clearfield Progress (July 28, 1964, p. 9), he is described in this way: “Now he is the hottest name on Liberty Records, has made millions of fans among teenagers and adults, appeared on all the top television shows and is weighing a half-dozen more motion picture offers. Through it all, Bobby Vee retains the same shy, soft-spoken qualities that made him a favorite among friends in Fargo, N. D., where he was born on April 30, 1943”. More recent profiles describe him as “self-deprecating” and “a great guy”.
Wait for another Bob. Bob Dylan wrote in his autobiography Chronicles (2004) how, as a young Elston Gunnn, he met Bobby: “His band was called The Shadows and I had hitchhiked out there and talked my way into joining his group as a piano player on some of his local gigs, one in the basement of a church. I played a few shows with him, but he really didn’t need a piano player and, besides, it was hard finding a piano that was in tune in the halls that he played”. Dylan felt that “Bobby Vee and me had a lot in common, even though our paths would take such different directions”. For Bob – er, Elston – Bobby had “a metallic, edgy tone to his voice and it was as musical as a silver bell”. Dylan goes on to describe how at the time of “Take Good Care of My Baby” in 1961, he wanted to see Bobby again: “He was on the top of the heap now. It seemed like so much had happened to him in such a short time. Bobby came out to see me; was as down-to-earth as ever, was wearing a shiny silk suit and narrow tie, seemed genuinely glad to see me, didn’t even act surprised”.
Bob Dylan never forgot his “old friend and fellow performer”. At a 2013 show, Dylan introduced a song he was to perform with a tribute to Bobby. “I’ve been on the stage with most of those people” explained Dylan referencing the likes of Madonna and Mick Jagger, “But the most meaningful person I’ve ever been on the stage with, was a man who is here tonight, who used to sing a song called “Suzie Baby”. I want to say that Bobby Vee is actually here tonight. Maybe you can show your appreciation with just a round of applause. So, we’re gonna try to do this song, like I’ve done it with him before once or twice”. And with that, Suzie had another shot of life.
In real life, Bobby may have been the teen idol, but perhaps the girls were indeed hard to find. Listen to the song “The Idol” by Bobby’s regular songwriters, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and you get the idea. In an article for a section of the Van Nuys News called “Teen Talk” (September 30, 1960, p. 8-B), it was written that “Bobby has been so active this past year that he has had little time to relax and enjoy things other teenagers of his age usually do”. This included making new friends or meeting girls. What did Bobby look for in a friend or girl? The article explained: “‘The first thing I look for in a friend,’ says Bobby, ‘is a kind of sincerity that you can’t fake’. As for girls, Bobby admits to a wholesome and typical 17-year-old enthusiasm but also reveals he likes his dates ‘quiet types, not gigglers or gabbers. I also prefer a girl with a sense of humor’”. In the liner notes for The Adobe Sessions describing “Love Must Have Passed Me By”, originally written by Bobby in the ’50s and first recorded just after “Suzie Baby” (but not released at the time), it is described how Bobby was asked by singer-songwriter Rosie Flores “How does a 15 year old write such lyrics?” He replied, “I just wanted a girlfriend so damn bad!” Those 15-year old-feelings held up well enough for Rosie to want to sing that song on her own 2012 album with Bobby providing harmonies (and the collaboration made its way onto Bobby’s Adobe Sessions as well).
However, the guy who wanted that girlfriend “so darn bad” (actually Bobby said “damn”, but the slightly more wholesome “darn” just seems to fit better when imagining a 15-year-old Bobby) would meet the love of his life soon enough, Karen Bergen. The two were engaged July 1, 1963, and married December 28th of that year. Together they raised four children: Jeff, Tommy, Robby, and Jenny. Karen reflected on their marriage in 2014: “I think we’ve both led our own lives and led life together … We supported each other in what we were doing. We both had careers, and we both enjoyed the other’s career. He participated in mine sometimes, and I participated in his. Raising the kids together and having common goals and common values. And we had a lot of fun”. In recent years, Karen had significant health problems, including undergoing a lung transplant. True to the Vellines, they were open with fans, and the children turned outward continuing works started by their parents to benefit the arts and music programs. In looking at photos posted on Bobby’s website and elsewhere of Karen with her children and grandchildren, I am reminded of the phrase writer Margaret Talbot told her readers was one of her mother’s. Like Margaret’s mother, you can tell that Karen’s family “made her heart sing”. Bobby and Karen Velline remained together until Karen’s passing on August 3, 2015.
What the Vellines have left for us, besides of course a lifetime of music that continues with the next generation and beyond, is as Bobby and family wrote in the liner notes of The Adobe Sessions “our little family scrapbook”. After recording in Tucson and realising they had enough material, this album was born. Bobby provides the vocals and, of course, acoustic guitar, and the Vellines and friends perform the tracks, many of them written by the family.
It is an album about new love, long-lasting love, memories. There are songs that have meant much to the Vee family. Some link with Bobby’s own past such as “I Like It Like That” by Smokey Robinson and Mary Taplin that Bobby first recorded in 1968. There is “In My Baby’s Eyes,” by – you guessed it – Goffin and King that Bobby released his original version of long, long ago (another B-side!).
Others Bobby has performed live for years, such as “Save the Last Dance for Me” or “The Man in Me” by Dylan. “The Man in Me” and two songs by Hank Williams that Bobby has known, loved, and performed for so long are fresh and different here. While the essential truths of these and other songs remain the same, in Bobby’s hands their meanings change and deepen with time. There are Velline family favourites, “I’m Just a Country Boy” by Fred Hellerman and Marshall Barer and “Walls” by Gordon Lightfoot, the latter of which was a family road trip favourite. There is Daniel Lanois’ “The Maker” with monks of Saint John’s Abbey Schola providing a Gregorian chant. As Bobby writes in the liner notes, “Unforgettable”. And with his vocals – you still kill me, Bobby.
It is probably a false dichotomy to separate songs on the album into those Bobby has performed/recorded before, and those that have been part of the Velline family’s life. After all, with the Vellines music has been a way of business and a way of life. Robby Vee and his mom, Karen, wrote one of my favourites on the album, “Father to a Son”. As they write and Bobby performs, “It’s who you love and how you love in all the special ways/That’s all you take with you and the rest fades away”.
In preparing to write this, I read album notes, watched old Scopitone films on YouTube (music videos of the ‘60s) that really are a trip, and looked at photos. Some of my favourites were of a young Bobby in Rome, the newlyweds, the family, and of course Bobby on stage over time. I thought about memory. Jeff Vee wrote in his Care Advantage article about the need to always make new memories, “The road ahead is indeed murky. We think about it, but it does not rule the day. Life is about right now—trite, perhaps, but true. And we are all better people for this. We have the scrapbooks to prove it!” Another writer, Kate Swaffer, came to mind. Kate Swaffer is a fantastic writer and scholar. I actually was one of her lecturers when I was a PhD student. She was diagnosed with younger onset dementia. She wrote, “When my mind is not bursting with memories, which it is more prone to these days, I try not to neglect it, or to ignore it, but to fill my being, my life, my belly, with laughter, love and tenderness, and friendships, and most of all with caring for others, so that it is possible to see I am not alone, and that there are others also experiencing their own grief and pain, and loss and sadness… none of us are really alone, even though we can feel that way some days”.
While Bobby Vee has retired, and we the public may see less of him, he is still here. Thank you, Bobby, and the family Vee. We love you more than we can say.
The Adobe Sessions is available at Amazon.com, CD Baby, iTunes, and your usual online or bricks-and-mortar stores. Likewise, Familiar Stranger by Bob Evans is available online or in-store, including through iTunes.
Can you believe we’re approaching August? This year a lot of friends have mentioned how they feel the days and weeks seem to be flying by. Last Saturday on our way into town for dinner, Bob and I saw three young men dressed in festive sweaters heading to what was probably a Christmas in July soiree. It was a very cold night, and I can only imagine that this trio felt very wise indeed in their warm garments as they crossed Pulteney Street. We both wondered out loud where exactly they had bought their Rudolph sweaters with bright red pom-pom noses. Then it started to rain and the traffic became the focus of my attention. Please tell me if this isn’t specific to my city, but I get the distinct impression that Adelaide drivers experience a type of Gremlins effect when it rains. Just like little Gizmo in the film who gets wet and spawns some ballistic creatures, the ability to drive or act in any rational way on the roads seems lost when even a few drops fall.
I emailed my mentor and friend, Professor Emeritus Rosalind Cartwright, at the end of 2012 about how the last couple of years had seemed to fly by. I must have given her the impression that I had been drifting along, rather than using my time and talents effectively. Writing back just a few hours later, Professor Cartwright advised me to “spend your young adulthood wisely so that in the following decades you will have something valuable to do that lasts”. And her reply ended with “I saw promise in you that needs to be a focus so that time does not continue to slip away”. I return to her email often. It really was the start of three years of more productive work in my day job, as well as the start of this blog.
Professor Cartwright’s words echo whenever I resist the urge to do what I love the most: write. Two other psychologists, Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner, discussed procrastination and time management among other topics in a series of seminars I attended last year. They’ve also written some pithy columns on these issues for Nature, including “Waiting for the Motivation Fairy” and “Turbocharge Your Writing Today”. Their take home point regarding time was that you are never going to have more time than you do now. Hugh also had some cool visual props, but I keep their trade secrets fresh for attendees. From these seminars, I learnt to be really honest with myself as to when I was procrastinating and avoiding writing, and when there wasn’t enough time for everything I wanted to do, which meant some things had to go to make way for others.
And so I write to you after not posting here since May. Being honest with myself, there has been maybe 5% procrastination and 95% of what feels like a faster-ticking clock than usual involved. Procrastination is peculiarly strong in writers. Anyone who writes for a living or a hobby (and I do both) will tell you that writing is the hardest part of writing. Odd given I’d be concerned if a teacher told me the hardest thing about teaching was teaching, or a doctor telling me it was, ah…doctoring. Wait, that’s forgery, right? Which a good doctor would never do, unless it’s one of those “based on a true story” TV-movie doctors who someone like Judith Light or Melissa Gilbert has to bring to justice.
Like those doctors, a lot of writers believe they’ll be discovered for the frauds that they imagine themselves to be. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes came up with a memorable title in their psychology research for this tendency: impostor phenomenon. I rarely see 200 lightbulbs of recognition go off so consistently than when I introduce this concept to psychology undergrads. My other consistent mental patterns are overgeneralizing and catastrophizing. If I can’t come up with a new idea, a coherent way to get my point across, or if I write a piece that I am not happy with, I start to think I’ll never write again, I’m a bad writer, and I’ll never write a piece as good as that last one. Although that last time was pure chance you impostor, you.
But I don’t only operate on a diet of procrastination, fear, and tapas alone. There are also more practical reasons for finding it hard to write. Since returning from Japan in late April, work has been incredibly busy and, more to the point, mentally taxing. Usually I write for the blog at night, but I haven’t had the energy after days of particularly complex and difficult research. It’s been all I can do to sit in front of the TV and watch MasterChef while thinking, Why can’t you cook like that 23 year old, you impostor… But I’ve had to realise sometimes it’s OK. I also made the decision to put on hold some initial ideas for articles as I work on three very large projects for the blog. The first is an interview conducted in late May, and is now in the writing-up stage. The second and third are two articles I am researching on actors who have passed away, but who left big impressions and much love for them behind. Although I do wish that I could increase the speed of my progress, I relish the research phase.
What do I do when I have ideas but not the time to write about them? I have notebooks all over my home office with the beginnings of articles. These may be a paragraph or two; sometimes even just an opening line. Some of these will be completed and others may fall away. But I find so long as I write them down, put the notebook to one side, and return to it every now and then, I will finish these initial ideas at some point. For those occasions when I don’t, I usually realise that’s OK, too.
There are lots of ideas in those notebooks. One of them is reflecting on the end of Mad Men in May, specifically critiques of the final episode. A lot of reviews centred on how much of a conclusion the final episode was to the series and its lead character Don Draper. Many of the shows I loved growing up didn’t have finale episodes. Often they had already been off the air for almost 10 or 20 years by then, and finales weren’t really the done thing when those shows were made. My favourite, Bewitched from 1964-72, certainly didn’t. Another favourite, M*A*S*H* (1972-83), did. It was even released on video. When I found it in Video Mania, I rented it, watched excitedly, and ran (not really, it was a distance from our house and I didn’t really run anywhere in those days) back to ask the 15 year old behind the counter if they had the last episode of Bewitched. He looked a little surprised, but to his credit he did type it (or something) into the computer. To this day I don’t really expect a show to have an end episode, although cancelling a show on a cliffhanger was done to maddening effect a few years back for my friend Paul with Kyle XY, and for me with the reboot of Dallas just last year.
I was happy with the way Mad Men did it. There was a good balance of the change required of central characters in a fictional narrative and the continuity of personality and behaviour in a person that is real life. Don would get up the next morning and his life would go on, whether he learnt to develop trusting relationships with his children, friends and co-workers, and a partner; and whether he returned to advertising. I think it was a good choice in the final season to have Don work at the real-life McCann Erickson, an agency that had existed in its merged form for 40 years when Don entered it, and which is now in 2015, 85 years old. We know that the agency would go on with or without him. When I left my first university job, I walked down the corridor, past the room where I had taught (and was, before that, a student) and almost expected the walls to come down. Metaphorically, at least – I’m sure the structure was sound. It’s like the episode of The Simpsons where Homer becomes the voice of a cartoon dog named Poochie and advises the scriptwriters, “… whenever Poochie’s not onscreen, all the other characters should be asking ‘Where’s Poochie?’” I had to realise that’s not the way the world works, and Don had to do the same. Mad Men stops telling the characters’ stories in 1970. I am sad that’s where I leave them. But, come what may, I wish them all well.
I was also pleased with a nod Mad Men gave to Bewitched in one of its final episodes. They have done this many times before. I’ve always felt that inspiration for Don Draper and co. was drawn from their adman predecessors in Bewitched. I guess since Mad Men is set in the ‘60s and briefly in the ‘70s, Darrin, Samantha, and Larry Tate from Bewitched are actually contemporaries of Don, Betty, and Roger. I’m sure it was no coincidence that that decision was made to film part of the Mad Men episode “Lost Horizon” at the Warner Bros. Ranch, formerly Columbia Ranch. On this lot is the neighbourhood known as “Blondie Street” that is home to the facades of a whole range of shows, including Bewitched. It is here that Don’s attempts to track down the mysterious waitress, Diana, end. He rocks up at the home of her husband, which was used 50 years ago as the home of Samantha and Darrin’s nosey neighbours, Mr and Mrs Kravitz! Well, The Partridge Family house if you prefer dreamy Keith Partridge. When Don leaves, Samantha and Darrin’s house can be seen across the street! I like to think Samantha was at home at the time, waiting for Darrin to come home from a hard day at his office on Madison Avenue.
I haven’t started a new show since Mad Men finished. However, I have been engrossed in Donna Tartt’s novel The Secret History, which has also given me some ideas for a piece. In fact, about how quickly time feels like it passes. Of course, I went away to Japan in April and I should really write about that. But I know if I try to write about all of these things while I am so busy, I will probably end up writing about none. Ah, my old friends anxiety and catastrophizing, we meet again.
I am actually sitting down to write this on July 24. Some 46 years ago the Apollo 11 mission ended with the safe return to Earth of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. The date was one I remembered from school, but I was reminded of it after watching a story on TV about the discovery of an earth-like planet, Kepler-452b. What a title. Guess “Earth” was already taken, but still.
I’ve just put on the record player an LP of The Walker Brothers before I go to get ready for my friend Adam’s birthday in the city. I usually prefer original albums to buying compilations or “greatest hits” on record, but this one was on sale. One of my favourite songs is “Stay with Me Baby”, and besides their version being included there are other great tracks. Right now “Make It Easy on Yourself”, the lead from their album Take It Easy with the Walker Brothers, is on. All right I see what you’re doing Scott, John, and Gary Walker. I’ll take it as easy as I can as I navigate the rain soaked roads, and likely more Gremlins.
Thanks to David Pierce for verifying that I did, indeed, see the Kravitz house on Mad Men. I was more focused on Samantha and Darrin’s.
Saturdays have never really done it for me. I’m probably in the minority, but I prefer Sundays. Part of the reason for my mild aversion to Saturdays is because, until relatively recently, I didn’t really have them. While I was studying at university, I worked 9-5 every Saturday for almost nine years. First there was a job at a department store, then one at a supermarket, and finally, while I was a PhD student, Saturdays more often than not were spent at my office desk writing lectures and catching up on research. Or washing the coffee cups that I’d used in the office during the week. Caffeine consumption surely increases the closer a PhD student gets to thesis submission. PhD students tend to be “close to thesis submission” for about three years. This meant that I had few free Saturdays, as well as regularly chapped hands from the no-frills dish soap kindly provided by the University.
I will digress for a moment to tell you about the department store job. This is not really anything to do with Sunday, but I recently did some research on my old stomping ground. The position was over Christmas, and some of us (i.e. me) might still have our trees up, so it’s at least relevant to the season. I also can’t rule out not working at all on Sundays. Although I have no such recollection, I wouldn’t imagine that even 15 years ago the opportunity wasn’t seized by retailers.
The department store gig at David Jones was a mere few months, but rather memorable for two rocking horses named Nimble and Nipper. You see, I didn’t work in, say, men’s shoes or haberdashery (because, well, it wasn’t 1975). I worked in the Magic Cave. This is where Santa takes up residency in Adelaide every year. I don’t care about those vicious rumors that he’s also been spotted in a couple of the other department stores around town, the Surf Lifesaving Club, or even enjoying pintxos and sangria down Gouger Street with someone who is definitely not Mrs. Claus. The true home of Santa Claus in Adelaide has always been the Magic Cave. If you’re wondering why Santa chooses to stay here over the holiday season, Adelaide was just named by The New York Times as 1 of 52 places to visit in 2015, and is the only Australian city to be on the list. Evidently the trip a few friends and I (a sextet in the purest sense of the term consisting of Carlo, Luke, Mark, Paul, Simon, and moi…that’s Paul and Simon, not Paul Simon) took to New York in 2011 wasn’t enough to sour them on our city, even if it did the people. What can I say? I’m sorry we misconstrued the true meaning of the Meatpacking District.
These rather engaging, if somewhat wooden, equine have been draw cards at the Magic Cave since the early part of the 20th Century. Nimble has been there since 1914, and Nipper followed a little later in 1926. The Magic Cave was originally housed in the John Martin’s department store in Rundle Mall. On 18 November, 1933, the first Christmas Pageant made its way down the main streets of Adelaide, and Nimble and Nipper “with their attendant jockeys” were on hand (“Father Christmas Arrives Tomorrow”, The News, November 17, 1933, p. 8). Even then, the “well beloved Nimble … was hailed with delight by the crowds of children” and “when Nipper, the smaller pony, followed, their joy was complete” (The Adelaide Chronicle, November 30, 1933, p. 60). If you say neigh to horses, there was also a seven-foot high Christmas pudding. To provide some perspective on how long Nimble and Nipper have been part of Adelaide’s collective affection, on the same page of the News article it was reported that “Clark Gable’s Distinction” was that he “Did Not Fall in Love with Greta Garbo” while filming a movie called Susan Lenox. Readers were told that a half-page picture of Mr. Gable “printed on art paper, suitable for framing” would be in the paper the following day.
Here’s the Christmas Pageant from 1980 (Nipper and then Nimble appear 45 minutes in and close to the arrival of Santa Claus/Father Christmas).
I worked at David Jones in late 2000, shortly after the opening of its sparkly new building. The store had inherited the Magic Cave from John Martin’s when that much-missed store closed after 132 years of trading. I was tasked with being a “rocker”, which is exactly what it sounds like. You essentially grab the ear of the horse that you are tasked with rocking (in the most humane way possible) and use your same-side leg to move the rocking base while a child rides it. Until a couple of weeks ago, I’d never bothered to find out whether the horses who I worked with were the originals. While I would like to say that I was too busy at the time, the only things I really remember from that year off the top of my head are dancing to the song “Who the Hell Are You” by Madison Avenue, and putting a picture of Sydney Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe in a PowerPoint presentation for an assignment.
Having long since given up hope that Madison Avenue would stage a comeback, I decided to email the good people who run the Pageant. It turns out that the current Nipper and Nimble are likely from the time when John Martin’s expanded from its flagship to also have a number of suburban stores (which I think was in the 1960s). The original Nimble still exists ensconced safely away, but the very first Nipper is said to have been a straw horse. Eventually a wooden Nipper was made. While I wasn’t working with the originals (and frankly one of them sounds like a fire risk), it’s kind of neat to think they’d be there since the 1960s, a turbulent or, dare I say, rocky time (all right, I’ll stop now).
But returning to Sundays. I think the reason that I like them is that Saturdays are filled with too many expectations. Now I know I’m once again writing about Saturday when I should be focusing on Sunday. It’s unfair to Sunday, much like relentless comparisons between Jan Brady and her more glamorous sister Marcia. But it’s here that perhaps the difference lies. People expect Saturday to be perfect. While Jan’s middle-child syndrome meant that she could fly under the radar, quietly achieving and doing well in school, there was so much more expectation on Marcia. When Marcia was less than perfect, even through no real fault of her own, she was considered a failure. The famous case in point is the episode “The Subject Was Noses”, also known as the time Marcia got hit with the football. All it took was a ball to the face and hunky Doug Simpson put the kibosh on their impending date. Marcia was then stuck with nerdy Charlie. I don’t care what brave face she put on under all the bandages – it wasn’t Charlie she wanted in that tic-tac-toe lineup during the show’s opening credits.
Sunday (AKA the Real Jan Brady) doesn’t have such expectation attached to it. It is largely still considered (at least implicitly) a day of rest and, if you are a person of faith, worship and quiet reflection after church. Of course, Sunday trading has become the norm in a lot of Western countries including Australia. But even then it’s far from unanimous. In Germany, you’re constricted by something called the Ladenschlussgesetz. Some states in America still don’t allow car sales to go ahead on a Sunday under “blue laws” that attempt to maintain Sundays for worship. Even those driven by more secular interests may find that not a lot is open. As a result of this tradition, Sunday has largely been a day where it is expected that you will do very little.
I’m a person who has a very hard time relaxing. So for me, a day when there is no expectation is just wonderful. No one can really mess up a day of rest. Okay, those who are religious might worry that they’re not being pious enough. But if you’re worrying about that, chances are you actually have nothing to worry about.
Sundays seem perfect for walks in the museum, reading that book which just wouldn’t feel right on a Saturday, or doing very little at all and still feeling that you’ve accomplished something. In high school, I used Sundays to write the essays that I liked doing the most (or despised the least): Ancient History and Italian. In between, I’d watch reruns on cable TV of The Invaders starring Roy Thinnes as David Vincent. It was a later series from Quinn Martin, the producer of The Fugitive. In his first series, the villain was known to be “the one-armed man”. In The Invaders, the aliens threatening Earth were only distinguishable by a pinky finger that jutted out weirdly. And that they liked to annihilate anyone who got in their way.
As I mentioned, it is hard to stuff up a day of doing nothing. But sometimes one likes to be contrary. It has only been relatively recently that I’ve found the joy in Sunday. It was really a forced few weekends on the couch after some particularly busy work weeks that I started to realise how great this could be. Gradually, the couch moved to reading outside on the deck, to cleaning out a cupboard, to writing blog posts like these.
I think the opportunities posed by a Sunday are obscured by early experience. I haven’t always loved Sundays. Sundays were largely dreary and meandered at home when you were a child. There was nothing to do. The television shows you – or at least I – loved were largely on during the week (for enquiring minds, mine were A Country Practice, MacGyver, Family Ties, and a short-lived show about policewomen called Skirts), and toys that were exciting on, say a Wednesday, were a bore. It’s kind of like in that episode of The Twilight Zone where the ventriloquist dummy comes to life, but only Cliff Robertson can hear him. In that case, Cliff Robertson was tormented – rather than excited – by that dummy coming to life. None of my toys really tormented me. Maybe my knock-off of the Teddy Ruxpin reminded me that I didn’t have a real Teddy Ruxpin. But this was the ‘80s – children weren’t such brand whores then.
Almost all stores except delicatessens were closed. I remember getting a carton of milk from the deli every Sunday. My memories must be from after we disentangled ourselves from the milk man. Not that it was an acrimonious separation, but it did go on for a while. Gradually, we ordered less and less stock from him. When we cancelled our order of chocolate milk, I think we all knew that it was over but didn’t want to admit it. We find it hard in my family to let go sometimes.
Sundays were also when you’d be dragged along to visit extended family. Lack of open stores meant the choices for a token gift for your hosts were largely restricted to the deli and a Cadbury block of chocolate or, more often, a pack of Savoiardi. Either was carried in a brown-paper bag to give it that “I went to the deli on the way and it was a choice of this or 500 grams of Borlotti beans” kind of look. For those of you who have never had the pleasure (or never invited me over on a Sunday), Savoiardi are large sponge-finger biscuits covered in sugar. They are good for dipping into a hot drink, but you can’t hesitate in biting off the soaked part of the biscuit for even a moment. There’s a window of about three seconds before it will fall off and land in your cup of tea. You will spend the rest of your drinking time trying to fish it out.
I actually had the chance to ask a few people the question: What is your idea of a perfect Sunday? Emmy-winning actor Billy Warlock (Days of Our Lives, Baywatch) and Oscar-winner Tatum O’Neal (Paper Moon, Rescue Me, She’s Funny That Way) agreed with each other. I don’t think that they colluded, although Tatum was an on-screen grifter and Billy’s A. J. Quartermaine in General Hospital was always rather shifty. They both said that Sundays are for “doing whatever you want”. Billy described it as “A get out of jail free card if you will”. Tatum said that for her, “I do all the girly stuff like hair and face masques”. Strangely, my face masque day is actually Thursday, after a couple of drinks and the potential for misadventure.
Tim Ferguson probably will need a little down time on weekends after reteaming with his comedy troupe (“troupe” makes it sound like he was born in a suitcase), the Doug Anthony All Stars, as well as penning his recent memoir, Carry a Big Stick. Tim’s perfect Sunday involves, “A Sci-Fi movie at Hoyts Extreme Screen (it’s HUGE!), then partying hard till the movie comes true”. Rapper Cazwell, whose recent songs include “No Selfie Control” and “Dance Like You Got Good Credit” (so this is why he doesn’t call) has a similar idea of a perfect Sunday, but prefers his entertainment at home. You’re likely to find Cazwell spending the day with Lumpy Space Princesses, “watching Adventure Time on the couch”.
Bed does figure prominently in another couple of people’s Sundays. Rutanya Alda (Mommie Dearest, The Deer Hunter, Old Dogs & New Tricks)said her perfect Sunday involved “sleeping in until noon”. I can’t always manage to sleep until noon, but I guess if you’ve had to stay in The Amityville Horror house (as she did in the second film in the series), you can sleep anytime and anywhere. Chris Noel (Elvis Presley’s Girl Happy, Soldier in the Rain) also mentioned bed. Chris is the sweetheart of Vietnam vets for her tours and radio show A Date with Chris during the War, and for her advocacy which followed. She’s also been writing. A date with Chris on a Sunday is a much more sedate and charming affair: “Either a road trip, which I love, or a day in my comfy bed with Deva (my Maltese), Bentley (my Yorkshire), and Hollywood (a cat). We would have delicious food, and listen to beautiful music while I read a book”.
Simone Buchanan (Hey Dad..!, Neighbours, and the upcoming short Monsters) and Breckin Meyer (Road Trip, Robot Chicken, Franklin & Bash) have both recently played lawyers so perhaps they are particularly aware of work-life balance. Of course, one was a rather shonky (I think that’s a uniquely Australian phrase, but I’m sure people will get it) lawyer, and the other lawyer spent a good deal of his time trying to best Rob Lowe. Simone said, “It would have to be a sleep-in followed by a leisurely brunch with my husband and two boys. Preferably with a water view”. For Breckin, it’s “golf or basketball, and then hanging with my youngins”.
A few people have more active Sundays ahead. Gabrielle Carteris (Beverly Hills 90210,and the upcoming Send Me: An Original Web Series) said that hers would involve, “Sunshine, yoga, breakfast with my husband, hike and a big barbeque with friends and family”. This would be followed with a “hot tub and wine. That’s perfect!” Then there’s Tim Matheson (National Lampoon’s Animal House, The West Wing), who is currently busy with the TV series Hart of Dixie, but who will find time for the “Hollywood Farmers’ Market, a bike ride, binge watch some great TV, cook some personal specialties, and then sex with my girlfriend!”.
Maybe I’m doing exactly what I set out not to do: put too much expectation on Sunday. Perhaps Lucas Neff (Raising Hope,and soon in Glitch) has got it in one. He said that what makes a perfect Sunday are “the same things that make for a perfect Monday: fresh water, world peace, and fast Internet”.
Finally, of course times are certainly changing. For example, a survey published last year found that 65% of participants reported that they were actually busier on a Sunday than during the week. Tasks included seeing family (might explain why Savoiardi biscuits are still popular), grocery shopping, and ironing. Come to think of it, I do remember Mum being tasked with doing all the weekly ironing on a Sunday and the sound of the steam rising from the hot part of the iron. The survey also found that people experience “Sunday blues” knowing that they have to go to work the next day. When I first thought of writing this, my friend Mark – over pintxos and sangria funnily enough – mentioned that sinking feeling, which comes on at about three in the afternoon. I don’t really get that. I tend to have a general sinking feeling most of the time. Maybe Sunday then isn’t much better than other days – and maybe it hasn’t ever been – but for me it still has some edge. Perhaps we need to be more like Lucas Neff (I never thought I’d say that) and make every day a Sunday. Just don’t forget to go to work or wear pants.
Athens has been on my mind. Recently I came into possession of a large number of Penguin Classics. Sometimes walking down the halls at a university you’ll find a table piled high with old books. A retiring academic is usually the culprit. Most of the time stopping to look isn’t worth your while. Old copies of textbooks that have long been revised sit alongside proceedings from obscure conferences. But every now and then you hit the mother lode.
My new books are mostly the works of ancient Greeks and Romans: Herodotus’ The Histories; the Old Comedy of Aristophanes; Plato’s Republic (the sole book that was not a Penguin Classic, but a Wordsworth) and two dialogues, Protagoras and Meno; and, for the more sage of you, Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic. As an aside, there were also Dickens’ Bleak House, D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. A reader of film novelizations this person was not.
With the exception of Herodotus, I hadn’t read many of these works. The Histories was the first classic text we studied in Year 12 (senior year) Ancient History. My friend Luke turned his copy into a flip book by drawing a little cartoon on the corner of each page. If memory serves, in his cartoon a football player marks the ball and then takes a run up to kick it for goal; but ends up falling over. Someone may have punched the football player. There was a lot going on. After all, The Histories is more than 600 pages.
When I started re-reading parts of The Histories (our teacher told us it wasn’t the kind of thing you read chronologically), some of it came back fairly immediately. It is a fantastic read. I remembered the Persian invasion of Greece led by Xerxes and, in particular, the Battle of Thermopylae. This is where Leonidas the Spartan, leading the forces of the city-states against the invasion, “fell, having fought most gallantly”. Herodotus claims to have learnt the names of 300 Spartans who perished with him. Our teacher did tell us that Herodotus could be prone to exaggeration. Other parts of The Histories that I came across were, frankly, Greek. It’s sad how much you forget from high school. That last year, in particular, is when you (or at least I) lived and breathed the studied works.
Plutarch, one of my favourite historians, wasn’t amongst the newly-acquired books. Plutarch originally presented his essays on notable Greeks and Romans in pairs: he’d pair a Greek and Roman life, write separate biographies for each, and then compare the two. These days the Greek and Roman lives are usually studied separately and in different volumes. Having a box of works written by Greek historians without Plutarch would be like the time all but one of the original Brady kids appeared in A Very Brady Christmas. In order to make sure I didn’t spend another family Christmas wondering where Cindy was – and why on earth Marcia ended up with Wally Logan – I decided to go buy The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives, a translation by Ian Scott-Kilvert that I used in high school. All these years later, the book is sold with the same cover.
Plutarch always held sway with me. This historian’s focus on what his subjects achieved or the ignominy of their time in power struck a chord when I was very interested in the ways that notable people made their mark on the world; for better and for worse. My preoccupation was probably the result of a combination of factors. The first was being in that transitional time at the end of high school when issues of who you want to become as an adult are particularly pertinent. Few things made me think about that as much as literature. Other seminal events of senior year, such as the moment when the Phys Ed teacher shows you how to put on a condom on a banana, didn’t have much of an impact on me. In any event, my English teacher was given that task. I’m just glad he had a banana and not a copy of, say, The Great Gatsby. The second was, through no coincidence of course, the works teachers chose for class texts that dealt with these very issues. In English we started the year with Death of a Salesman. I really liked…actually I’m going to level with you. I know it’s a classic. I know it’s amazing. But fuck, it’s depressing.
I was rummaging a couple of months back through some boxes and found an old story that I had written for a competition from final year high school. I came in second place; first was a poet. It’s interesting how many friends I have this in common with. We’re like the Buzz Aldrin of the spaced-out set. In the piece, I contrast people who seem destined “to ride the pageants or sit at the head of the triumphs through life”, “others [who] act to give meaning to their lives, whether statesman, politician, martyr, civil or religious rights activist” and, finally, “those who stay at the party too long, get too inebriated from it all, and stain a reputation – whether Plutrach’s ‘butchers’ or those whose volts open wide after generations, revealing filed and forgotten atrocities”.
Man, was I laying it on a bit thick. That might make me sound like a very serious young man, probably with a pair of sensible glasses. But truth be told, at that time I still had perfect vision and my expectations for living a moral or impactful life were much more modest. I wanted a Calvin Klein Jeans t-shirt and to find a café where I could make friends with the staff and a core group of regulars. I wanted the regulars to have names like Corrine. I did find such a place and started to get to know the staff. However, that coffee shop didn’t last the turn of the millennium. It’s now a Wok-in-a-Box.
A few days after buying The Rise of Fall of Athens I had the urge to start looking over past holiday photos. I made it to Athens a few years after high school. Greece was my first trip outside of Australia, and Athens the first city I ever visited (at least initially) on my own. I guess it’s my first love. I had been to Sydney, Melbourne, and the Gold Coast before Athens and, by that reasoning, one of those should take that spot. But that was only interstate travel. Not true love. Kind of like kissing a cousin, I’d imagine.
Was Athens so appealing because I had studied it those few years before? Perhaps, but without the Romans Plutarch wouldn’t have had his Parallel Lives. In school, we did a semester each of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. I loved them both. I have fond memories of reading Roman texts like Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars and Tacitus’ The Annals of Imperial Rome. Yes, it’s true; I’m admitting that I like Annals. I think that I’ve just regressed to the kind of things we’d say to each other in high school. Indeed, while Athens and Rome were my fist two stops on my European adventure, I hardly could have wanted for historical (and just generally great) cities during that entire trip: Venice, Naples (which kind of scared the shit out of us), Berlin, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Paris, and London.
Well, why Athens then? It’s not really hard to pinpoint it when I remember opening my hotel window and seeing clear to the Acropolis. Athens was exactly what I needed at the time. I had experienced some losses shortly before leaving for Greece. The sun did me good, I could talk with my friend Claire into the late hours (not that early, all the walking made me tired), and being in an ancient city gave me a different perspective. The whole time I had Gustave Flaubert in my head, “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world”.
My time in Athens was also much longer than those subsequent cities on the itinerary. I’m usually at my best traveling when I’ve got time to get used to a place. I like the feeling when you return to your hotel room in the afternoon and it feels a little like home. The whole reason I was in Europe in the first place was an international psychology conference in Athens. They even put me up in the Hilton Athens. I realized within the first couple of days that time at a conference is often incidental to the world travel of its delegates. My main memories of the conference sessions are when the person who chaired a session decided he’d be the best person to answer any questions from the audience, even if they were directed at the speakers. I also saw Charles D. Spielberger – the creator of perhaps the most-utilized anger scales in psychology – in an elevator at the Divani Caravel Hotel. I didn’t stop to introduce myself because I’d heard they were serving drinks on the rooftop bar; a wasted opportunity of my youth. Luckily, it was the best (and only) Chios Mastiha I’d ever tasted.
The schedule of the conference did leave me with time to explore the city with Claire, who is the daughter of two of my (now former) work colleagues and who tagged along with her parents. The days involved lots of walking in the hot July summer of Athens. The pace, however, was leisurely. One morning we visited the Athens War Museum, sat in the National Gardens of Athens and watched the goats and quails, and then ogled the guards outside the Greek Parliament. I should mention that these are all on the same avenue: Vasilissis Sofias.
An afternoon was spent walking the ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. The Acropolis must have been a day all to itself. Usually when I see a relic, tall building, or even a Columbine lolly wrapper on the floor while traveling I just assume that it must be important. In Greece, that relic was Hadrian’s Arch, the tall building Athens Towers, and that Columbine wrapper because you’re an uncouth tourist with a hole in his pocket. Athens really is that city that has the right to say, “I’m kind of a big deal”.
Walks back to the hotel usually involved stopping for a soft drink at one of the many newspaper stands that lined the streets. Dinners were in the open-air restaurants of the Plaka or restaurants lining a public park where children played soccer and street hawkers placed religious icons on your table, leaving them there for a minute to see if you’d touch and, therefore, buy them.
Maybe my love of Athens also had something to do with the fact that sometimes, you don’t know what you don’t know. I was pretty naïve. I’d sit at a café almost every morning called Gush with my phone and wallet sitting in full view on the table while I read a paper and had a frappé and a sandwich with potato chips on the side. Nothing happened to me, so maybe my complete nonchalance deterred pickpockets and subway grinders. Or maybe I had a guardian angel in a gruff, smoking doorman named Baslikike. One night I asked him how I could get to the nightclubs in Piraeus that I’d heard about. He told me to go to a restaurant, get myself an ouzo, and then to go back to my room.
After my time in Athens, arriving in Rome was a bit of a rude awakening. No sooner had Carlo (my travel buddy for the rest of the trip) and I disembarked from a flight where I was sure we’d have to stick our jumpers out of the windows to help the plane land, a rather strapping Spanish man approached us. He told us the train to the city was not running and we’d have to take a taxi. Mr. Spanish Man sounded legit and, being a social psychologist, I subscribed to the heuristic, “what is beautiful is good”. Somewhere along the way to his big black van we realized that this wasn’t a good idea, and I wrestled my Samsonite (let’s just take some poetic licence here) from his bronzed hand. On our first day of sightseeing, Carlo and I lost each other in Termini Station. Looking around for my friend, I tripped over my feet and fell to floor exclaiming at the top of my lungs, “Faaaark!” Not that I didn’t love Rome. Rome just brings out the expressive Italian in me.
Now I am determined to reacquaint myself with Plutarch and (at least initially) his nine lives. I remember Themistocles, Pericles, and Lysander well. Other Athenians, like Nicias and Alchibiades, ring a bell. And then there are some like poor Cimon (pronounced Ki-Mon), whom I mostly remember because of a class exercise where we had to give a speech as an Athenian. A classmate named Simon got up in front of the class and said, “Hello, I’m Si-Mon”. We all laughed. I had better start with Cimon’s life to make up for being an uncouth Columbine-eating tourist who remembers humorous wordplay instead of important Athenian strategoi.
One day I would like to return to Athens. I was there in 2006. Since then the city has been hit hard by the debt crisis. I imagine Athens is quite different to what I remember even from only those few years ago. In Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (Richard Crawley translation) a speech Pericles gave to his countrymen in the first year of the War is recounted: “In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas; while I doubt if the world can produce a man, who where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian”. I hope for her return.
I’m also determined to get my Italian up to scratch. This was something else I studied in high school. I was a fluent speaker after final exams and would proudly call a great uncle in Calabria to have conversations. So good that words were dropped into the conversation that had nothing to do with what we were discussing, like “meraviglia” (wonder) and “barbocino” (poodle). My friend Andrew was much smarter about maintaining the momentum of his studies and would speak in Italian to almost everyone when we all went away for Schoolies Week (holidays following final exams for my non-Australian readers). He did this even if the other person had never uttered a word of it before. At least I think he was speaking Italian. We all did drink a lot. I have decided to remedy that and bought a copy of Schaum’s Italian Grammar, a book I used in high school. Right now I’m on the imperfect subjunctive tense. One of the examples is Cercavo una segretaria che parlasse Italiano. That means I was looking for a secretary who spoke Italian. After high school, I guess I could have easily related my needs to a recruitment agency in Rome.