Tag Archives: The New York Times

The Trick Is to Keep Breathing

New York City blackout, 1965 by Bob Gomel (via Wikimedia Commons).
New York City blackout, 1965 by Bob Gomel (via Wikimedia Commons).

Where were you when the lights went out?

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.

Terry-Thomas and Doris Day in Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? (via Wikimedia Commons).
Terry-Thomas and Doris Day in Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? (via Wikimedia Commons).

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?

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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.

Goldie Hawn in my all-time favourite film, Cactus Flower.
Goldie Hawn in my all-time favourite film, Cactus Flower.

Screencaps for The Simpsons episode “Lisa the Tree Hugger” via Frinkiac.

Sunday, You’re Looking Neat in Your Tidy Attire

Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte) by Georges Seurat (via Wikimedia Commons).
Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte) by Georges Seurat (via Wikimedia Commons).

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.

I think that I was picturing something else when I applied for the job.
I think that I was picturing something else when I applied for the job.

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.

Doug Simpson caught between the Brady women.
Doug Simpson caught between the Brady women.

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.

Sometimes I can be a little on edge.
Sometimes I can be a little on edge.

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.

Aliens don't take it easy on a Sunday, and neither does David Vincent.
Aliens don’t take it easy on a Sunday, and neither does David Vincent.

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.

The Chordettes say that you can kiss them on any day "but never, never on a Sunday". Even May 1st is fine (Picture: 45cat)
The Chordettes say that you can kiss them on any day “but never, never on a Sunday”. Even May 1st is fine (Picture: 45cat)

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.

Tatum O'Neal (Photo: Twitter)
Tatum O’Neal (Photo: Twitter)
Billy Warlock (Photo: IMDb)
Billy Warlock (Photo: IMDb)

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 memoirCarry 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”.

Tim Ferguson (Photo: Carry A Big Stick Facebook page)
Tim Ferguson (Photo: Carry A Big Stick Facebook page)
Cazwell (Photo: Official Website)
Cazwell (Photo: Official Website)

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”.

Rutanya Alda (Photo: Facebook)
Rutanya Alda (Photo: Facebook)
Chris Noel (Photo: Facebook)
Chris Noel (Photo: Facebook)

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”.

Simone Buchanan (Photo: Julian Dolman - Headshot Photographer)
Simone Buchanan (Photo: Julian Dolman – Headshot Photographer)
Breckin Meyer (Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images North America)
Breckin Meyer (Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images North America)

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!”.

Gabrielle Carteris (Photo: Twitter)
Gabrielle Carteris (Photo: Twitter)
Tim Matheson (Photo: Facebook)
Tim Matheson (Photo: Facebook)

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”.

Lucas Neff. He insisted I use this photo
Lucas Neff. He insisted I use this photo

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.