The Sad Songs

It’s best not to think about Mark Linkous, or his musical moniker, Sparklehorse, on a bright and sunny day.

Today is gloomy, the clouds are low, snow is predicted, but hail has arrived and as such, it is the perfect day to think about them.

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I came to Sparklehorse by way of PJ Harvey, who collaborated with Mark on the album It’s a Wonderful Life (spoiler alert: It was not. It is also best not to think about the fate of Mark Linkous, ever, but this article in Pitchfork is quite wonderful in explaining the allure of the man and his music, of which Tom Waits said, “It’s like opening your eyes underwater at the bottom of a stream. You go, ‘Jesus, look what’s down here.’”).

I’m not one for making heroes of artists I admire. No-one makes it through life without causing pain, everyone can be held up to the light and be found flawed, but when I was in my late 20s and fairly certain my life would never recover from the mistakes I had made and that I would never correct the path I was on, I had a line of lyrics from Mark and PJ’s song, ‘Eyepennies’, tattooed on my forearm, written in shorthand because even I am not maudlin enough to face answering questions from strangers about the meaning of this peculiar little song about the weight of sadness.

I love the sad songs. My guitar teacher used to joke that I had an uncanny ability to pick songs written in strange time signatures, always in the minor scale.

In my third year of university, I lived in a share house with a high school friend and we made a mixed tape of the saddest songs we knew. The two that were by far the saddest were ‘Your Sweet Voice’ by The Reindeer Section, a song in the classic sad song canon of heartbreak, and ‘Eyepennies’.

There’s something enjoyable and bittersweet about listening to sad songs when life is fine, like maybe sometimes the heart needs to hurt a little to keep growing.

The Bathroom: After

And then … it was done!

It’s an understatement to say I love the result. I cried when I saw it. Then I cried the first time I used the shower and if you’ve never experienced PMS and you think it’s just a walk in the park that involves eating a lot of chocolate without guilt, welcome to the facts of life! It changes your entire brain. You suddenly can’t listen to anything that isn’t Color Me Badd. You cry when you’re running on a treadmill because you saw an ad for the RSPCA and not even a sad ad, just one with a lot of cute baby animals. You actually start composing a letter to early noughties, semi-successful boy-band member, Nick Lachey, to tell him you’re so sorry he was blindsided by his divorce from Jessica Simpson.

Or you might cry in your shower because you’re sad you won’t see your builder again.

The photos don’t do the colours justice. I had thought about going with a white that was tinted to match the wall tiles, but it had a blue base and it looked very sterile. Instead, the walls and woodwork were painted in Dulux Snowy Mountains Half, which I can’t recommend enough. At some point I will do the window frames as well, but if I waited to post photos of it completely finished, we’d be here for years.

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The mirror is 900×900 to match the length of the vanity and to give it enough height so I can do tall lady things in it without half my face being chopped off. The only thing I would change about this set up is that my builder suggested keeping the drawers on the right-hand side of the vanity, but this vanity went in closer to the wall and I suspect unless I’m really careful, there will be some paint damage to the architrave.

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Oooh, look at this part!

Non-plastic taps! A double towel rail! A fancy glass wall! A GODDAMNED NICHE!

I am having a love affair with that niche. The shower recess is quite long and wide and I do like to go for a stroll in there fully clothed, just to look at the niche.

The tiler, who by the end of the job did try really hard to smile at me, managed to get the perfect fall in the tiles on the shower floor without needing to cut the tiles, so even though it absolutely looks like water should get around the glass, it doesn’t at all!

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I am going to keep the bathroom really simple, but I have added a few little accessories, which I will hold off posting about until the last piece arrives in early September, because I think it will tie the whole thing together.

Thank you for coming along on this journey with me, especially those people who had to witness the two years before the renovations actually started. It wasn’t pretty and did involve a lot of colourful language.

The Bathroom: During

After two years of getting quotes and having various builders tell me that the renovations would cost anywhere between $3,000 and $20,000, I finally settled on the guy who built my parent’s house and I am so glad I did.

Now, I am partial to a tradie crush, but ladies, he’s taken both maritally and also as far as getting first dibs on him to do work. Not even I get that privilege, that goes to my mum who’s lining him up to finally install a door that separates their “powder room” from the hallway near the lounge room so you can use their bathroom without feeling like you’re basically sitting on the lap of whoever happens to be watching TV at the time.

Speaking of toilets, I had a bright blue portaloo in my front yard for six weeks in the middle of an Orange winter! Have you ever been rained on while going to the toilet? Probably, because unlike me, you’ve gone camping.

I haven’t gone camping, unless you count that one hotel in Seattle which was so horrendous that I just stood in the middle of the room with my bag on my back, spinning around in a circle, pointing at things and going, “Exposed live wires, possible blood on carpet, no running water, evidence of previous guest in the bathroom, bed bugs.”

My portaloo was nicer than that hotel room. It smelt great, which was slightly concerning because I was never able to figure out where the very sweet tropical scent was actually coming from and I’m pretty sure whatever the chemical was, it was strong enough that I got a contact high from it.

Also, someone, who has yet to own up to it, left me cat food in there on the first night! Some people would find that creepy, I loved it, so thank you, whoever you are!

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The whole reason for the renovation was because whoever built the house decided that waterproofing the bathroom was excessive and that particle board, the most porous of all boards, was the best base for the tile bed.

Surprise! It wasn’t! The tile bed was the only thing holding parts of the floor together and although my builder said, “Oh no, you wouldn’t have gone through it!” … he went through it.

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I came home early in the piece to a spooky looking barrier, which of course, because I’ve watched a lot of Scooby-Doo and was high on portaloo perfume, I decided to ignore.

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Oh cool! Just where I was naked and at my most vulnerable for two years of my life!

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The damage was extensive. The bathroom got gutted.

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And then, it got put back together with so much waterproofing that in centuries, historians will point to it as the only remaining evidence of how middle-class spinsters lived in the early 21st century. Just kidding! We’ve ruined out planet, there won’t be historians for the 21st century!

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Turns out they put water in the bath to hold it down while the silicon sets, one of many things I learnt about building. Other lessons included: Just leave the Italian tiler alone, he does not want to be friends, and plaster powder! You’ll be finding it for years!

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Tiling was when I started to get excited. For someone who only wears black, my house is an absolute carnival of colour, but I decided to rein it in for the bathroom and when I came home and saw how good the white tiles looked, I started practicising saying, “Yeah, I’m like a Scandi minimalist?” to myself in the mirror, while flicking my hair and pretending to smoke a cigarette.

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The tiles in the niche are the most genius thing I’ve ever done, including my thesis on feminist science fiction and Levinasian existentialism. These tiles are both better, and more interesting than that.

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Finally, it was time to paint.

Have I ever mentioned I worked at Bunnings? I did, for most of the time I was at uni. I was known as “the goth girl at Bunnings” [author’s note: I’m not a goth, black clothes are just super chic and look good with a lot of really large silver jewellery, which is my fetish. I don’t wear black nail polish and I really don’t like The Cure, thus, not a goth].

Anyway, I worked at Bunnings for a long time and finally I got to be the person asking to colour match paint and buy sample pots and it turns out painting patches on the wall and writing on it is almost the same level of fun as roller-coasters.

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Finally, my mum and my aunt came and painted the bathroom. They are absolute clowns, which only intensifies when they’re together in a small space with paint fumes, but they did an amazing job and I have told them I’m going to install a brass plaque to commemorate their generosity.

Later, I discovered my mum had left a message to the builder in part of the paint that he needed to go over, and when he saw it, he said, “Oh you mum’s a character!” and I said, “Love me! … I mean, yes, she is.”

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Finally, the toilet went in. By this stage I was so addicted to portaloo perfume that I found myself twice that night putting on my gumboots to make the trek to the portaloo, forgetting that now I can go to the bathroom without needing protection from mud! And even in the middle of the night if I want to! And the neighbours don’t need to know about it! And people driving past won’t even see my pyjamas!

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This account glosses over some of the more annoying parts of not having a bathroom, like sometimes making a 40km round trip to use my parent’s shower, or the time I came out of the shower at work and found the cleaner just standing there, holding up a rag like he has been waiting to polish me, or the fact that my nieces started to answer the door with, “Mu-um. It’s Julia. She’s here to have a show-er!” and then just running off to watch cartoons because seeing me stopped being a novelty. Even seeing me leave in my pyjamas with my hair up in a towel stopped being funny.

In the next installation, I’ll unveil the finished product and reveal the fact that a combination of PMS and relief made me cry like Tobias Fünke the first time I used the shower! See you then!

The Bathroom: Before

There is no-one more sick of hearing about, thinking about, or talking about my bathroom than me. Except possibly my father, who said more than once, “This is killing me!”

And yet here I am, telling its tale, once again.

It all started when my dad looked at my rental ledger and pointed out I’d paid off over $30,000 on someone else’s mortgage and told me it was time to choose a place to live and stop hauling my increasingly large amount of possessions off to a new suburb or city every time I decided to blow my life up.

At that stage I was still living in the rental house B and I moved into in Bathurst when we still thought we were going to get married.

Narrator: They did not get married.

I culled a three bedroom, couple-who-own-two-dogs-and-a-cat life down to a small strata title duplex in Orange and in the time it took the strata manager to approve the renovations required to fix the water damage in the bathroom, I lost one of the dogs to old age, the neighbour sold her property, the strata manager screamed in my face twice, I had to get a solicitor involved, and my dad rued the day he ever asked to look at my rental ledger.

In order to fully explain what those two years were like, I need to show you some pictures. Before viewing them, please put on the sunglasses provided, and familiarise yourself with the location of the sick bag, which can be found in the pocket of the seat in front of you.

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Oh hey, cream walls and tiny pink tiles!

See the patches of missing tiles? By the end, tiles were just coming up when I walked across the floor.

The things you can’t see here because of a forgiving filter are scorch marks on the vanity and the toilet, which was prone to lime buildup, which my nieces loudly told me was “gross” every time they visited.

This wasn’t even the worst part. Please, follow me in a little further so we can look at the health hazard that was allegedly the shower:

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Rustic feature tiles! Creeping mold that I could never get rid of because the grout around the tiles had disintegrated so badly that the floor was always damp! A single towel rail which made me feel like I was destined to die alone every time I looked at it! The drain in the shower which at this stage was so badly damaged that when it was removed, the hole it was sitting in was twice as big as it should’ve been! The entire sub-floor which was being held together by the tile bed alone, which we discovered when my builder fell through it! That shower screen!

Nineties interior design has a lot to answer for, although I’m not sure the grunge aesthetic was intentional.

At this stage, the last day of June, I was beyond ready to never see my bathroom again. Little did I know what the next six weeks would hold!

Please tune in for that exciting installment tomorrow, same time, same channel.

2020: The Plagues of Egypt Edition

This is going well so far.

A plague of locusts and I’m going to have to darken the doorstep of a church.

Somewhere between the bush fires and the Coronavirus I stopped sleeping, even the small amount I usually get. I don’t think it had anything to do with either, it was more just the icing on the dirt cake that 2020 seems determined to be.

I went to a new doctor, who was initially very dismissive until I yelled, “I don’t like your bedside manner!” while wondering if that was applicable in a room without a bed.

What happened in the room stays in the room, but over her figurine of a cute cow holding a sign saying, “I’m not fat, I’m fluffy!”, she and I reached an understanding and since then she’s been very proactive in pushing me in the direction of various specialists and after a day spent drooling from the aftermath of my first encounter with Restavit, I’ve discovered half a tablet doesn’t put me to sleep, but once I fight my way there, it does keep me asleep.

While this was being sorted, I decided to try reading a book every time I found myself lying on the couch, staring at the ceiling and it turned out I was staring at the ceiling a lot, because I read 12 books in January alone, which I took to be a sign I may have taken my hermit lifestyle too far.

It took weeks for my brain to catch up with the new norms. How could the world be so different when everything looked exactly the same?

My brain got there eventually and I’ve come to like some of the changes. I like less traffic on the road, I like things being quieter, but I still hate evenings and living alone sometimes feels oppressive. Has this virus not seen my youngest niece, Nora? She’s a tiny blonde pixie, who you have no choice but to carry around and squeeze with love every time you see her. Not being able to see her or squeeze her is a cruel and unusual punishment.

Like every man and his dog, I swore I would use this time to better myself as a person, and like every foolish man and his dog, I’ve made a list that’s probably going to be too long, even for a pandemic, but I’m doing some stuff, mostly in the garden, which rewarded me this week with the first sasanqua flower I’ve ever managed.

A pandemic is about the only thing that could distract from what a huge difference there is in the landscape between January and now. Water returned, green returned. Not enough to end the drought, but enough to loosen its grip.

The New Decade

And so here we are, a new decade, one that feels much less like the gleaming science fiction future we were promised and much more like every dystopian novel realised.

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The area I live is not considered a high fire risk at the moment because it’s so drought-stricken that there’s practically no fuel for fires if they were to start, but like much of the state, the air is filled with fire smoke and the dust the wind picks up from the bare paddocks.

A strange side-effect is that when I’ve been driving through particular areas with my air-conditioning on, I’ve been getting contact rashes and my arms end up covered in hives. I’m assuming there’s some kind of pollen or seed in the air as grasses shed in distress.

Like a lot of people my age, I’ve lived through enough droughts to have heard of young children amazed by rain because they’ve never seen it before, but I’ve never seen anything like this.  It’s strange enough to see people in other parts of the country using sprinklers, they seem like foreign objects now, but it’s also becoming incongruous to see cattle and sheep when it doesn’t seem possible there’s anything left in paddocks for them to eat.

It’s not exactly the dazzling start to a new decade we’re conditioned to expect, but it’s what we’ve got and if anything perhaps we will emerge more resilient and wiser to how to resist the status quo.

The Year in Review: 2019

End-of-year roundups are exhausting, so this is just a list of things I liked that happened to happen in 2019:

  • Good music, particularly Sharon Van Etten‘s album, Remind Me Tomorrow, which is delightfully Springsteen-esque, as well as the awesome Epic Beard Men album, This Was Supposed to Be Fun, which is actually a lot of fun!
  •  Re-reading Infinite Jest and allowing myself to just enjoy how challenging it is and taking time to appreciate the tricks of the language. I really felt my brain was exercised and exorcised by the end
  • Spending $500 to get the air-conditioning fixed in my black car with its black leather interior. It paid for itself in the heatwave that hit even before it was officially summer and also means my right arm is no longer tanned from driving with the window down. I also enjoyed going to the car wash at midnight with all the other people who drive low, teenage boy turbo cars and spending $20 on a Bluetooth FM transmitter so I can listen to podcasts through my car stereo. I love perfectly made things which solve an annoying problem, even more so when they only cost $20
  • The addition of Lolli and Mack to the wider family. They’ve eaten sheets and entire outdoor lounge settings, they’ve slipped inside and caused havoc, they’ve delighted adults and children alike. They are both Very Good Dogs  and rascals at the  same time

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  • Preparing cosplay for Comicon and being left in charge of booking accommodation, which I realised, upon arrival, was in the notorious Opal Tower, which was undergoing repairs for major structural damage at the time, but honestly was fine if you just trod lightly!

Comicon itself was really fun, though I will be happy if I never have to clean up after using black hair spray ever again.

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  • I don’t even use Twitter anymore and my attention span is still so short that watching a movie can be a challenge, but I was determined to revisit every Tarantino movie before seeing Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood and it was worth all 1246 minutes of viewing pleasure

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  • If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s advanced trigonometry and saying ‘advanced trigonometry’ when really I mean ‘online shopping’. I made several outstanding purchases this year, which included Paul Jackson’s Darwin’s Revenge, eyeball pillowcases and a ginvent calendar!

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  • I feel like I peaked about a week early, but excessive pre-Christmas cheer was also a standout this year. Christmas can be a difficult time, but it’s hard to feel blue when you have a bright purple Christmas tree and gaudy leopard print baubles!

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  • Finally, we did a lot of family walks with dogs this year and I felt very fortunate to witness the landscape and the changing seasons before everything was ravaged by drought. I’ve stopped taking photos because it’s too depressing, verging on desperate, but I hope the new year will bring some relief

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The Garner Road Trip

The Sydney road trip was such a delight.

S and I left mid-morning Saturday, our only aim making it to a church in the back streets of Silverwater for a dance recital which promised both Alice In Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh.

We stopped in the mountains for deli sandwiches, the counter of which was run by a woman with a single, elaborate victory roll on top of her head and a commanding understanding of who exactly would be served and in what order.

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We made it to Silverwater, greeted by our startlingly tall nephew, loping down the footpath like a particularly excited puppy.

He will always be the first person I loved at first sight, a fact that didn’t appear to matter to him as he squirmed away from me while I danced in my seat to the pre-performance music. I appear to have reached the point where adoration gives way to a sense of in no way wanting anyone to associate him with the old person making a fool of themselves in public.

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Thankfully his younger sister still has a few years left of unadulterated love for being looked at, spoken to, celebrated, before she too inevitably finds me so embarrassing.

L played a tap-dancing Tigger, the only problem being the very dramatic discovery she had lost a single tap shoe backstage, so she ended up being an excellent tap-dancing, jazz shoe-wearing Tigger instead.

She very gracefully accepted her post-performance gift from S, a pair of gaudy clip-on earrings, like the future Broadway star she is.

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All official aunt duties complete, the rest of the weekend slipped into a haze of cocktails and some of the best food I’ve ever eaten.

We started at the The Old Clare in Chippendale, where we indulged in a cocktail called the Scarlett, the appeal of which was the tequila and cinnamon base, the pleasant surprise of which was the cherry and marshmallow garnishing.

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The last time I was at The Old Clare was many years prior, the last night it was just, I guess, The Clare.

I don’t remember much of that night, except drinking a lot of wine with a lot of women in the bathrooms while we took selfies, the only evidence I have that the night actually ever happened:

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We had dinner at NOMAD in Surry Hills, which serves simple but incredible modern Middle Eastern food and cocktails named without flourish.

I partook of The Gin Drink and The Vodka Drink.

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The highlights of the banquet menu for me were the fried green olives with nduja, the zucchini flowers with truffle honey and pecorino and the cauliflower with jersey yoghurt and currant escabeche.

Delicious!

Sunday was the main event: Helen Garner. On stage. In person.

Helen Garner, author of more sentences that have stunned me than any other writer, books with more empathy in their pages then I could ever hope to hold in my heart and the creator of the bluntest, saltiest, most perfectly constructed prose I’ve ever read.

Right there. In front of us. For one hour, during which she gave every single question an absolute considered response.

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Afterwards we walked through Martin Place, earlier in the day crowded with people taking part in a religious protest, which by evening had given way to crowds looking at the incredibly large and newly erected Christmas trees.

We went to the GPO for yet more cocktails, this time an embarrassingly tall Pimms, which arrived accompanied by the surprised laughter of the tables around us, and whose straw was completely unmanageable from a sitting position.

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By Monday, we were tired, looking forward to a quick visit to Newtown for brunch and a relaxed drive home.

Newtown is probably the only place in Sydney which tugs my heartstrings and gives me the smallest doubt that moving to the country was the right decision.

I miss the cold, dark terrace I lived in with some of the best housemates I ever had, the late-night restaurants and the cinema with an art-house slant. I miss all the picnics in parks and the friends living close by, sitting in their backyards with beer on hot afternoons.

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There wasn’t much time to wallow in it though. About half-way home my car’s ignition coils gave up with a sigh and a shudder and I’ve spent the days since grateful for my country town mechanic who will fit me in whenever I need him, for working within walking distance of both him and home, living close enough to family to get help when I need it and seeing my two little nieces enthralled and completely taken in by the magic of Christmas tress and fairy lights.

Sydney though, I will be back and we will continue our complicated relationship another time.

The Preparation for a Road Trip

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Tomorrow morning I’m heading to Sydney for a weekend of family, food and Helen Garner.

My younger sister and I left Sydney a couple of years ago now and have only been back a handful of times. For me at least, I was burnt out from living in such a densely populated city, such a humid city, such an expensive city. I wanted to avoid it at all costs.

Now I rarely go back because so much of my life is in the country. I have things to do most weekends, which don’t involve navigating the Blue Mountains and crowds of people.

The pull of Helen Garner can make a woman change her mind about a lot of things.

I first heard of Helen shortly after The First Stone was published in 1995. My mum and older sister went to see her speak at the local library, but I had other things to do in the mid-90s, like haunt army fatigue stores and carefully cut out pictures from magazines of musicians whose music sometimes hadn’t even reached sleepy central west New South Wales at the time.

When they came home from the library though, I immediately regretted my decision, their description of The First Stone alone enough to sweep me up in what has now been decades of Garner Fever.

I read the extract of Joe Cinque’s Consolation in the car park of Bathurst Bunnings on my lunch break during my third year of uni and have never been able to visit Canberra since without feeling the dark cloud of Joe’s death.

I spent a confusing, hot week with Monkey Grip, which shook my moral compass as I struggling with the realisation that bad decisions you’ve gone into wide-eyed won’t necessarily ruin your entire life.

There are huge parts of True Stories which are so deeply ingrained that they feel like my own memories, or stories I was told by my mother, or her mother. Garner is a very maternal writer.

On Sunday I’m going with both my sisters to see her speak about her newly published diaries and it feels like such a treat.

 

 

 

 

 

The Bush Fires

The weather has suddenly become claustrophobic, the house like an oven when I get home from work, having baked in the afternoon sun.

It’s the kind of weather where you open up the windows and there’s no cool air anywhere to displace the heat.

Everything smells like the bush fires, just weeks ago the wood fire heating of the neighbours, the seasons changed so fast.

Just a few months ago we built a big bonfire to burn off some dropped branches, yesterday the caramel-coloured labradoodle appeared covered in black soot, having rolled in the remaining ashes of the bonfire which would now be catastrophic to even consider.

My dad came home after a day of drafting lambs, his face and hands covered in the orange dirt that has been hanging in a haze, looking like he’d had a terrible spray tan, a country cousin of George Hamilton with his teeth and hair looking peculiarly white.

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Our town is in the news for its progressive water restrictions, which were never fully lifted after the last bad drought a few years ago, but it still feels like everything is running out.

If you are a water diviner you’re doing a booming trade, your craft seeming less like mysticism to the people eager to pay through the teeth for metres and metres of exploration to find bore water.

The impending summer feels like it will make or break things.

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