A Short History of Me Part Seven: “Family Guy”

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The saying goes that “timing is everything”. But I believe that when it comes to romance, that equation is not quite right. In my experience, true love can result when about 80% good timing is mixed with 20% good chemistry. Mutual attraction is important but if the timing is off – it ain’t going to work. So it was on December 8, 2001, at a Trailer Trash Christmas Party, that timing and chemistry converged for myself and the beautiful Bronwyn.

I had first met her a few years earlier, shortly after I had moved into my Bondi Beach bachelor pad. A mutual friend, Susan, had invited me to Sunday brunch along with a few of her (available) girlfriends, including Bronwyn. I don’t actually remember much about our first encounter. But at least I remember it. Bronwyn, on the other hand, has no recollection whatsoever of meeting me then. So obviously I didn’t make much of an impression. Not that it really mattered. At the time I was still wrapped up in a cloud of romantic delusion, obsessed with a woman I barely knew who resided on the other side of the globe and didn’t speak a word of English (okay – I exaggerate – she probably spoke seven or eight words of English). But throughout the following few years, I continued to be invited to various social gatherings by Susan and gradually saw more of Bronwyn. Although in some ways she wasn’t exactly my type, like being blonde instead of brunette, I did find her intriguing – though on at least one occasion a bit intimidating.

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Rocking up in my army pants and flannel shirt to the Trailer Trash Christmas Party (for which Bronwyn featured on the invite), I was in a good head space. I had been working at SBS for a couple of months and was generally feeling right with the world. So was Bronwyn, as it turns out, and she was glowing despite (or perhaps because of) her crimped hair and flashing light Christmas earrings. She looked great. And, a bit to my surprise, she seemed keen on paying me special attention – buying me drinks and dancing with me. I think it was the dancing that finally sealed the deal. She is a fantastic dancer – as am I (no false modesty about that). And so, on the dance floor, dressed as a couple of white trash trailer dwellers, our chemistry mixed and ignited a coupling that is still going strong almost fifteen years later.

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Though originally from Sutherland Shire (aka ‘The Shire’) in Sydney’s south, Bronwyn had also been living in Bondi for several years and had even managed to buy her own one-bedroom apartment. As someone whose own financial survival tended to be on a week to week basis, Bronwyn having her own place impressed me greatly. As did the fact that she was generally good company. Although quite different in many ways, we managed to click – our shared humour becoming the glue that still helps keeps us together. We also seemed to travel well as a couple, going on several little trips. And within a year we had moved into a two-bedroom flat about a block away from her place.

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IMG_60842002 saw us attend many parties – Bronwyn being part of a peer group that seemed to enjoy throwing fancy dress parties. This was also the year my sister turned 30 and had herself a Disco Diva party in Melbourne. Though I’m not nearly the social creature Bronwyn is, she managed to talk me into having a ‘Fancy Pants 40th’ in January 2003. It was quite the gathering but I knew at the time that it would also be my last big birthday bash.

Turning 40 didn’t end up being nearly as scary as I had once feared. This was no doubt due to finally no longer being on my own and having a steady creative job that I enjoyed. And three weeks after my birthday party, I was told something that I had started to believe I would never hear.

Bronwyn called me at home during her lunch break (not quite sure why I was home and DSCF0038not at SBS). She had just taken a pregnancy test in the public toilets at Chatswood’s Westfield shopping mall, put it in her handbag and then checked it while riding up an escalator. She was pregnant. I was going to be a Dad. Wow! So not how I ever imagined being told that news. But it didn’t matter. I was ecstatic – and in shock. But it was news we couldn’t really share – at least not for about 12 weeks, just in case. It was a strange sort of limbo, not knowing if your life was about to change forever or if you were going to have to deal with the disappointment of a miscarriage. But we were lucky – all was well and we got to tell the world. I thought we may as well make it a double whammy so I proposed to Bronwyn on her birthday (with a ring that really missed the mark and had to be replaced). We decided that we would focus on the nesting aspect – buy a place together (thanks to Bronwyn already owning a property) and then get around to actually having a wedding sometime down the track (which turned out to be six years later – a very long engagement).

Strangely, at a time when a new life was on the horizon, my focus was on death. Although producing promos was still my main gig at SBS, I had managed to persuade the executive producer of their current affairs program ‘Insight’ (before it became the forum based show it is now) to sign me up as a video journalist for a story on euthanasia. The main focus was on Australia’s very own ‘Dr. Death’ – Dr. Phillip Nitschke – the first doctor in the world to legally assist a suicide. Although the Northern Territory law that had allowed him to do so had since been squashed, he had moved on to holding workshops demonstrating numerous ways in which one could painlessly top oneself. Nitschke is a very odd and intense personality but intriguing. I also got to interview a wonderful Melbourne mother with a brain tumour who had acquired enough barbiturates to overdose should she decide to do so. The whole project took six months while I continued to produce promos and was both draining and rewarding. It was strange to watch 25 minutes of television that I had made. It did make me think however that I probably didn’t have enough of the ruthless tenacity required to be a journalist.

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After much hunting, Bronwyn and I (who never call each other by our actual names – we are both mutually known as ‘Babe’), finally landed a fantastic two-bedroom apartment about three minutes walk to Bondi Beach and equally close to where we were living. So it wasn’t a huge drive for the removalists. Bronwyn, who was bursting at the seams by then, was forbidden to move a thing. Once moved in, we had two weeks to feather our nest before the arrival of the little guy.

We already knew that we were having a boy. As there is just so much that you don’t know about your impending offspring, we decided we wanted to at least find out the gender. Bronwyn was pretty sure it was a girl. I wanted to brace myself in case it was a boy – knowing what I had been like growing up. When the ultra sound operator announced it was a boy, Bronwyn asked “Are you sure?” The reply: “If that’s not a boy then I don’t know what is.”

IMG_6081After so many months of fretting over rushing to the hospital when Bronwyn went into labour, the actual trip proved a bit anti-climatic. We had already been there the evening before when Bronwyn’s water had leaked slightly. After much testing and one nurse’s patronising observation that maybe Bronwyn had merely wet herself, we were told to go home, wait for labour to kick in and if it hadn’t by the next morning, to come back in and they would induce it. So after an uneventful night, we calmly drove back to the hospital, had a cup of tea while they prepared the room and then went up to get induced.

 

In a society predominantly run by men, we are a pretty useless bunch when it comes to actually bringing babies into the world (male doctors being the obvious exception). I wanted to be helpful and did manage to figure out how to get the nitrous oxide working (which was fun) as well as suggesting a helpful position for Bronwyn that made it a bit easier for her to push. But as for the actual work of getting our son out into the world – that was all Bronwyn. And she was amazing. My respect for her and all women went through the roof on that October day in 2003 and I remember thinking that attending a birth should be compulsory for all men – whether they are the father or not. Maybe then our gender’s respect for women would rise closer to its rightful place.

DSCF0052I was also responsible for the music we had playing and the only thing that didn’t annoy Bronwyn and seemed to actually help was an album by the improvised jazz trio, ‘The Necks’, entitled, ironically enough, “Sex”. So it was to the sounds of “Sex” that our baby boy burst into the world, one arm pointing forward like Astro Boy. When the midwife held him towards me and asked if I’d like to cut the cord, I was confused. No one had bothered to mention during our many pre-natal classes that this was a ‘thing’ expected of fathers. So I declined, rather thrown by the whole amazing event I’d just witnessed. But I did agree to hold him while the midwife and nurse attended to Bronwyn. I held him in my arms, looked into his eyes, and was overwhelmed by a feeling I had never felt before. It wasn’t exactly love, at least not like I’d ever experienced. It was more of a sense that, without yet knowing what kind of person this baby boy would become, I knew that I was already prepared to give my life up for his. What I didn’t say to him during this special moment, which I now regret, is: “Luke – I am your father”.

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Being a father – wow – what a game changer. What had once been a goal, then an ever increasing unlikelihood, was now a reality. And unlike my own parents, Bronwyn and I had waited until we were on the furthest end of the breeding spectrum. This proved to have its advantages (financial stability and having already experienced much of the world) and its disadvantages (less energy and a tendency to spoil our only child). And if you had asked me before I was a dad, I would have said that I was a relatively tolerant man (though I know of at least one person who would have scoffed at this notion). But as the reality of fatherhood took hold, I became increasingly aware of just how low my tolerance threshold actually is. Of course there were all the usual trials associated with having a baby (sleep deprivation being the biggie) but it was as Luke grew older and more vocal that my temperament was most tested. Having been a strong-willed boy, I had bred a strong-willed boy. Whether this is some sort of karmic payback or simply genetics, I don’t know. But there have been times when I have completely lost my shit. And when I have – it’s like looking in a mirror – the anger and rage reflected right back at me – only shorter. Fortunately, this is not always the case. For most of the time, especially as Luke has grown older and revealed more of his fascinating and wonderfully weird personality, he really is my best mate. I enjoy his company and look forward to our time together. And I do my very best not to lose my shit.

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Late one Saturday night in 2005 I came home rather intoxicated but still keen to read a bit of the newspaper. In the ‘It’s a Weird World’ section I found a short paragraph announcing that David Lynch, master of the macabre on both the big and small screens, had established a foundation with the goal of raising seven billion dollars in order to introduce Transcendental Meditation into American schools and, by doing so, help to bring about world peace. It was a beautifully bizarre concept – an artist so brilliant at portraying the darkness of the human psyche wanting to deliver peace on earth by getting kids to meditate. It really captured my imagination. So much so that I pitched the idea to SBS’s international current affairs program ‘Dateline’ as a story idea. They said they would support it if I got access to Lynch. Amazingly, I managed to do so – his TM people willing to have me travel with him on a lecture tour of American colleges. I was so excited. Until the pricks at Dateline changed their minds two days before I was to get on a plane to LA. I was devastated and disillusioned. I left my promotions gig at Dateline in protest. But a few weeks later I had an idea – maybe I could still do the story but as a self- funded documentary. Lynch’s people were still keen to have me join him on the next tour. So I increased my credit card limit, got a $2000 advance from the cable movie channel ‘Showtime’ in exchange for access to some of the interview footage and headed off to meet one of my heroes.

The subsequent adventure will most definitely be told in more detail in a later installment. But here is the abridged version. I went to Detroit first to shoot some kids (not literally) meditating thanks to Lynch’s foundation. Then went LA to meet and interviewed the man himself. He seemed to glow when I first met him – radiating charisma. Then I joined him and his beige-attired Maharishi worshipping entourage for a tour of several cities on the west coast – videoing the whole experience. Then I returned and took about a year to cut a 25 minute shortened version of the doco in an attempt to get some actual funding and support. I managed to get Michael Cordell, one of Australia’s most prolific producers, interested in being executive producer. In 2007, he gave me enough of his frequent flyer points and camera gear to return to the US to shoot footage of the David Lynch weekend that was held in Iowa, also now featuring the 60’s singer Donovan. I then returned, only for the project to die a slow death as we were unable to secure enough interest for a full documentary. But I learned a lot, got to meet one of my heroes and found aspects of it the most creatively satisfying project I have ever done.

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In late January 2009 Luke had his first day of school. He had already been fairly institutionalised by then, having attended day care since he was one for at least four days a week. But, not surprisingly, there were tears (mostly his). We had assumed that it was just first day nerves and he seemed more settled after a couple of days. However, on the following Tuesday morning, he marched into our room to announce: “Okay – here’s the deal. I’m going to school one day a week and that day was yesterday.” Ah Luke – always believing that he’s the guy calling the shots. In that respect, he hasn’t changed a bit.

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A few months later our very long engagement finally came to an end with a wedding at the Bondi Surf Life Savers Club, overlooking the beach. It was quite the event and, despite a bit of juggling thanks to the venue being double-booked, everything went well. All the planning was a bit stressful but, unlike many couples, we were able to call our own shots and didn’t have to meet the expectations of others. Bronwyn looked amazing. Luke was also very fetching in his little suit. But the several hundred dollars we had spent learning to dance to a swing version of “I Walk the Line” were pretty much wasted. Not wanting Luke to feel left out after our dance, Bronwyn and I invited him up to dance with us to his favourite song at the time: “Splish Splash I Was Taking a Bath”. Needless to say, he upstaged us. No one mentioned a single word was about our attempt to swing to The Line. But everybody loved Luke’s Splishing and Splashing.

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2010 was to be a globetrotting year for our little family, with two big trips. The first was to Thailand to visit my dad and his wife Goy. Before seeing them, we headed south to spend time with my uncle in Phuket. There was no evidence whatsoever of the tsunami that had swept away much of the town in 2004. My uncle took us to a newly rebuilt resort in Kao Lak, which had been especially devastated. On the way we stopped at an orphanage that he and his club had helped established after the tsunami. After a very relaxing few days in Kao Lak, it was back to Bangkok and north east to where my dad lives. What normally would have been about an hour and a half journey took us nearly six hours. It seemed our trip coincided with ‘Songran’ – the Thai new year festival – and a time when everyone leaves the city, hits the road and heads home. On the plus side, it was the most interesting and colourful traffic jam I had ever experienced – families packed into the back of pickups with washing machines and fridges. It was a relief though to finally reach my dad’s. We were certainly well fed, by my talented and hilarious ‘step-mother’ Goy and numerous yummy restaurants. Even Luke managed to handle a bit of spice. Not bad for a seven-year old.

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Our second adventure was towards the end of the year and was thanks to Bronwyn’s bridesmaid Helen inviting her friends to celebrate her fiftieth birthday in New York City. It was the one place on earth I had always wanted to see and it didn’t disappoint. On the way we celebrated Thanksgiving with my Californian cousins and their wonderful families. I love the concept of having a day dedicated to gathering with your family and friends to give thanks for your blessings and believe it’s one of the finest things about American culture. New York itself was mind-blowing: from the obvious like visiting the Statue of Liberty and seeing the Radio City Rockettes (hubba hubba!) to the little things like having the world’s best cannoli in Little Italy or ice skating in Central Park. We also managed to squeeze in both a football and hockey game, where we were blown away by the enthusiasm displayed over a goal or a fight. Then it was onto Denver to stay with good friends Lorna and Alex who took Luke and I to my birthplace – Boulder Colorado. Once again I came away thinking what a cool place to be born. Then we headed south to see my New Mexican cousins – the highlights being them serving some of the best Mexican food ever made and my extremely talented cousin Jessica doing a photo shoot for our family in the desert. Then we headed back north to spend Christmas with my Aunt Sue (who’s only 18 months older than me) and her family in Boise Idaho, where we were blessed with their generous hospitality and a white Christmas. Then south once more but this time to the original Mexico – specifically Mexico City to see Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s amazing Blue House, followed by a tour of where Trotsky was murdered (Luke was especially impressed with the bullet holes in the walls). All up it was an amazing and exhausting trip – made more so by a certain seven-year old boy who, unfortunately, displayed moments of being a total and utter little brat.

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It was back to reality when we returned in early 2011 and for me that meant a new gig at Seven Mate – Network Seven’s bloke’s channel that had launched a few months previously. We were encouraged to be a bit cheeky with the programs, which ranged from action movies to reality shows with toothless crocodile hunting hillbillies to out-there animations like “Family Guy”. I really enjoyed it at first, especially during the year I got to work from home and come into the office just a couple of days a week. Even the office days were fun – so much so that I almost wet myself one day as two crazy colleagues and I came up with numerous sexually loaded innuendos to promote a game show (including ‘beating your noodle’ and ‘tea bagging’). The other producers at Mate and Channel Seven were great and I really enjoyed their company. Plus the location was magic – right on the harbour in Pyrmont – perfect for taking script-inspiring walks. But there were downsides – including a corporate culture that continually underestimates the intelligence of its audience and the value of its employees having lives outside of work. After three years I decided to leave, returning briefly months later only to depart again after about six weeks, deciding that the work environment had become too toxic for me.

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Another upside to my gig at Mate was that I got promote the AFL (Aussie Rules Football – where giants leap and fleet-footed shorties scramble beneath them). This happened to coincide with Luke starting to play the game, for which he seems to have a natural talent, and me becoming a member of the Sydney Swans and attending numerous matches. Up until then, I had only had a passing interest in AFL since coming to Australia but definitely preferred it to both rugby codes – where neckless gorillas smash into each other while throwing a ball backwards. Over the past few years I have turned into a footy tragic – spending much of my winter watching games on tv, at the SCG or on the sidelines of Luke’s matches all over Sydney. I’m so far gone that I am even obsessed with ‘Fantasy Footy’ – doing my best to win games that don’t even exist. But, apart from seeing Luke’s under 12 team win their Grand Final, the definite high point of my love affair with this Aussie spawn sport was going to the 2012 AFL Grand Final with Luke in Melbourne and seeing our underdog Sydney Swans upset the seemingly unbeatable Hawthorn Hawks. And the low point? Going with Luke to the 2014 Grand Final to see the favoured Swans get hammered by the underdog Hawks. Yeah yeah – it’s just a game and shouldn’t matter. But it does. Very much so.

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Approaching my next significant birthday, I wasn’t nearly as chilled about the prospect as I had been a decade earlier. Frankly, the concept of turning 50 was a mind fuck. It didn’t matter that I often felt like a teenager and pretty much dressed like one – there’s no way around the fact that hitting the other side of half a century means that your life is ebbing away and you are now well into your ‘back nine’. So I wasn’t in a great head space for much of my 49th year – especially towards the end when Bronwyn started asking me what I wanted to do. “Nothing.” “But you have to do something. A party?” “I’d rather eat razor blades.” “Ok – how about a trip somewhere. Bali?” “No thanks.” “Somewhere else?” “Alright – I want to go to Japan and go skiing on my 50th birthday.” “Really?” “Yep.” “Ok – then that’s what we’ll do.” Ahhh – I love that woman.

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So, shortly after Christmas 2012, we headed for Tokyo via Beijing airport – the only building inside of which I have ever seen and tasted pollution. Tokyo was amazing – it really was like landing on another planet – exactly what I hoped for – but a planet where everyone was is polite (though with an undercurrent of perversion and deviance displayed through things like subway signs warning against up-skirting and gropers) and where zen-like ancient tradition happily co-exists with a crazy pop culture (I LOVE Japanese tv). We had a fantastic New Year’s Eve at a Sega electronic amusement park – perfect for a nine-year old. After Tokyo it was onto Kyoto where I had a very moving spiritual experience on the last day of my 40’s at a beautiful estate once owned by a silent movie star. Then up north to Nozawa Onsen where, as I had wished, I went skiing on my 50th birthday. I felt wonderful and happy to be alive – ‘back nine’ or not. Afterwards Luke and I soaked in a steaming ‘onsen’ (hot spring bath) and then joined Bronwyn for a magnificent 8 course Japanese meal. And there was no birthday cake – no ‘Happy Birthday to You’. Perfect.

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IMG_2880.JPGIn March of 2014 our little family got a bit bigger. After a steady campaign which began shortly after he learned to talk, Luke finally wore us down enough to get him a puppy. ‘Nitro’ the Cavoodle was already named by Luke – even before he was chosen from an online photo. He looked like the embodiment of cuteness – with his two toned black and tan woolly coat. He was bred on a farm near Canberra but was delivered to Wollongong for us to pick up. He wasn’t very happy about being taken away from all his brothers and kept us up for the first few nights – reminding Bronwyn and I of what it was like to have a screaming baby in a block of flats. “Not my idea” became Bronwyn’s mantra about our newest family member. But, as dogs do, he soon wormed his way into all of our hearts. Luke’s pleading promises to walk him everyday eventually turned empty, as we expected and as any other parent who has ever bought their kids a dog has no doubt experienced. But maybe the true beneficiary of having a little fluff ball has been me. I am now going for at least two long walks a day and especially enjoy our nightly romp along Bondi Beach. And, for a guy who doesn’t really pursue friendships, I now have a ‘bestie’ – a woolly little mate who absolutely worships me. And the feeling is mutual – I love his excitable buoyant nature, his desire to be everyone’s friend (except bulldogs), his weird leg-lifting, butt-sniffing doggie behaviour and, of course, the fact that he can’t say a word. I don’t think we’d get on nearly as well if he was jabbering all the time.

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IMG_5677Earlier this year we had another milestone – Luke’s first day of high school. The previous year had not been the best in terms of school. He had some issues with a couple of dickheads which resulted in a one-day suspension. And it seemed like everyone was just going through the motions in anticipation of changing schools the next year. Despite Luke’s desire to join most of his mates at the local high school, Bronwyn and I had decided years earlier that he would be better off at a private school. After investigating a few, we decided on one in the city. Luke was not enthusiastic but at least knew a few students from his footy team. So early one morning in late January, the three of us boarded a train into the city, Luke looking like an office worker in his blazer and tie. It felt weird to see him heading into the building with his footy mates, all of them a bit nervous. But in the following few months, we have all been very pleasantly surprised. Luke seems to genuinely like going there and has expanded his social network considerably. We are also impressed with the school so far. No doubt there will be speed bumps on the way but hopefully our son is somewhere that will help him flourish into a good-hearted, hard-working young man. And as I’ve pointed out to him, at least he doesn’t have to paddle a canoe for weeks at a time at his high school (interestingly – we both went on a little canoe trip recently and Luke refused to believe that, when I was just two years older than he is, I had to go on canoe trips that were over 1000 kilometres – pity it no longer exists so that we could threaten him with the prospect of going to Canadian Concentration School.)

And so we arrive at the present day. Work wise – I am continuing to promote tv shows but am doing so mostly from home. My main gig is with the ABC’s overseas service ‘Australia Plus’. I supplement this sometimes with a bit of SBS work. I love the freedom of working from home and hope I can continue to do so. I have a few grand ideas of how to perhaps make some money from the internet but, of course, in my typical underachieving lazy ass fashion, have so far done bugger all to try to make that a reality. But you never know…

Finally – to anyone who has managed to get through the entirety of this epic post without skipping bits – well done. And to the few of you who have read all the posts so far and now have a better understanding of my 50 plus years on the planet, thanks for your persistence. For myself, it’s been a fascinating process. Of course what I’ve written is little more than a connect the dots map of my life, giving brief glimpses into the moments I’ve been willing to share, often without any great emotional insight. Perhaps such insights will come in future posts, where I hope to focus more on individual episodes.  I also hope to write some brief little ‘snap shots’ of my current life. That is assuming, of course, there are any future posts at all. It has taken me months to slog my way through this one – largely I suspect because it is now footy season and much of my spare time is sucked up by watching games on the weekend and then watching experts crap on about those games during the week. And then there’s Netflix – offering endless distractions for this dedicated, but relatively happy, underachiever.

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A Short History of Me Part Six: “Down at the End of Lonely Street”

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In a cruel twist of symmetry, exactly ten years after the breakdown of my marriage at the close of 1986, I was now facing the end of the relationship that had endured for most of that previous decade. But this time, rather than the ‘dumper’, I was the ‘dumpee’. And as anyone who has ever been in that position can attest, it’s a very shitty place to be. Especially when you don’t see it coming and are under the delusion that your future is bright with the prospect of marriage and babies, not darkened by the impending shadow of bachelorhood.

There’s never a great time to kill off a long term relationship. But for Trish and I, the end of 1996 posed an especially tricky scenario. We were booked to fly to Perth for Christmas and then attend my brother’s wedding. Trish said that the ultimate decision was mine but, especially as she was fond of my family, she was keen to go west with me and then move to Melbourne once she got back. Perhaps it was wishful thinking on my part that there might still be some chance she’d change her mind during the time we’d be away, so I agreed. In hindsight – it was a mistake. Not wanting to distract from my brother’s big moment, we kept up the façade that all was well and that our own big moment was pending (though, in unexpected circumstances, I did tell my brother the truth the night before his wedding). It was a struggle to hide my hurt so I was doing a fair bit of herbal self-medicating. Unfortunately, I got sprung self-medicating in a car with the other best man during the reception– a minor scandal for which I copped a deserved rebuke from my unimpressed little bro. After the wedding, Trish and I took off on a trip up north, where it was hot, dusty and miserable. And on New Year’s Eve, we crawled into our tent about 9 o’clock and went straight to sleep. Happy Bloody New Year.

Returning to Sydney, I felt like the walking dead. I was physically and emotionally exhausted but nevertheless had to pack up most of our harbourside home on my own. Trish had left Perth before me, got back to Sydney, packed what she could take with her and headed to Melbourne for her next film gig. Moving sucks at the best of times but especially when it also marks the end of a relationship. Luckily, I managed to find a ‘bachelor flat’ (appropriately enough) in Birchgrove, near Balmain. It was a small one room studio apartment that was one of about six sitting on top of a large parking garage. Quite unusual but with the advantage of being close to the harbour. True, I was no longer right on the most glamourous part of Sydney’s foreshore but it was nice to still be near the water. And in an effort to make the place very much my own, I got hold of a bunch of material, dyed it purple, and covered the walls and ceiling – creating a sort of purple womb. This was, after all, my ‘purple period’, as I had been driving a lavender coloured Valiant station wagon for a couple of years. For some reason, purple was a comfort.

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vipassana-meditation 2.jpg Desperately searching for some sort of positive spin after having had my life turned upside down, I decided that this was an opportunity to turn a devastating situation into a wake up call. I had obviously been in some sort of state of self-delusion not to have seen this coming. So the time had come to delve deep within and I concluded that the best way to do so was to do a ten day Vipassana meditation retreat in the Blue Mountains. I had even thought that it would be a rather relaxing experience. Ha – relaxing – right!

The idea was to take a vow of silence and only speak if approached by one of the staff. The first daily meditation session began about at about 5:00 am, then breakfast and then several more sessions throughout the day, with no solid food after lunch. The silence wasn’t an issue for me – I really didn’t feel like talking anyway. But sitting on the floor in one position for an hour or two at a time – that was torturous. My body was screaming with pain – which you are meant to just observe until it passes. And my mind – well, that was performing all sorts of acrobatics – jumping, twisting and spinning around all over the shop. But – after about a week – calm began to sweep through. The pain came and went. And, for the first time since the breakup – probably much longer – I was aware of my inner strength.

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After returning to my new purple pad, I kept up the austere Vipassana lifestyle for several months – meditating for two hours every day and not smoking or drinking (my body must have been pleasantly surprised by this strange new behaviour). I also continued to learn the saxophone on my father’s beautiful 1950’s sax, something I had started the previous year. Funnily enough – there was a professional Italian sax player who lived two flats over. This meant that the poor guy in between us was surrounded by sax sounds (though on one side those sounds were far more musical). Although not originally my teacher, the Italian gave me a few lessons. But I grew increasingly self-conscious about the noise that was torturing my neighbour so I eventually gave it up.

I was also fairly busy with work. The ABC gig had grown to include promoting ABC videos as well as music, the ABC Shops and, occasionally, cooler stuff like youth radio network Triple J’s merchandise. As well as all this, I was getting fairly steady work producing corporate and government videos for ‘Beloved Pictures’, which was a small design and production company run by my very dear friends Simon and Pil. These two amazingly talented sci-fi loving foodies were so supportive of me during this tough time and I’ll always be grateful.

All of this contributed towards a fairly nurturing environment and I felt that I was healing (although when the building was hit by lightning one afternoon and set the fuse box on fire – that got the adrenaline pumping). As the months past, I began to feel that I needed a goal – an achievable one that would boost my confidence. And that’s how I decided that the next year, I would travel to Europe.

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I had always been somewhat of a Francophile but despite learning French for twelve years, I had retained nothing. So I decided that, since France would be a major focus of my holiday, I would take lessons at Alliance Francais. This was actually great fun and proved to be very helpful (though, surprisingly, not so much in France as in another country).

I also needed to gather as much money as possible so decided to supplement my income. I hadn’t driven cabs for several years and wasn’t keen to do so again. But I did have a contact for a guy who hired out 1950’s Cadillacs for weddings and corporate gigs. So I slicked back my hair and drove bridal parties around on weekends. Most of it was pretty boring, waiting outside during the ceremony, then taking them to their photo shoots, more waiting and finally onto the reception. But it certainly beat driving a cab and was a bit of a buzz to be controlling such a big beautiful beast of a machine.

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Towards the end of 1997 I was feeling much better about myself and my future. And it was during this time that I reconnected with Nikki, just over ten years after our relationship sort of ‘dissolved’. She had since had a bright and beautiful daughter who by then was about seven or eight. I enjoyed spending time with both of them, especially over the Christmas period. But as my departure date for Europe approached in 1998, I became more focused on that and started to disconnect from Nikki. Once again I failed to give her the attention that she deserved.

After a bit of last minute scrambling to secure a bank loan, I departed for Europe via Thailand on April 1st 1998. It appealed to me to leave on April Fool’s Day – an appropriate start to a fool’s adventure. I was determined to keep a journal for the trip. Here is the first entry: “I am over 11,000 feet in the air flying over the Blue Mountains, 105 miles out of Sydney with only 4500 until Thailand. I am sitting above the right wing, window seat (gives me a great view of the wing!) on Thai Air Fl992. I am surprisingly calm. The adventure begins!” And a little later I added: “Wing is still attached – good to see.”

I had decided to break up the long journey to London by stopping for a few days in Bangkok to visit my uncle who was living there. I had just missed my Dad’s visit by a couple of weeks – a trip that had so much of an impact on him that he too later moved to Thailand. Still, it was great to spend time with my uncle whom I had only ever seen fleetingly. He had lived a fairly adventurous life and had some great stories.

IMG_5731.jpgFrom Bangkok it was onto London. In order to do the entire trip any justice, I will have to leave details for a separate post. But here’s a quick whirlwind glance at some highlights: a mad hatter’s ‘tea’ party with some wonderful weirdos in London; a gathering of more weirdos in the Scottish highlands; getting the ‘gore tour’ of Belfast from a news cameraman a couple of weeks after the historic Good Friday Agreement; discovering that it really is a long way to Tipperary; visiting the Eiffel Tower; exploring Toulouse and the Cote D’Azur in the south of France; getting a sore neck in Barcelona from looking up at all the mind-blowing Gaudi buildings; getting a sore head in Barcelona from over indulging in all its brain blowing nightlife; falling in love in and with Italy; feeling like I landed on another planet whilst lost in Venice; discovering that Brussels is Europe’s best kept secret and watching the Netherlands beat Yugoslavia in the 1998 World Cup in a small pub in Amsterdam. Then, exhausted and in debt (not only to the bank but now also to Simon and Pil who had sent me over some money), I returned to Thailand but this time to Phuket where my uncle had since moved into a very palatial house on a hill (which later proved to be a handy location when the tsunami hit in 2004). It was the perfect place to recover – especially my little trip to Phi Phi island, where I narrowly missed hitting a shark when diving out of my kayak.

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As mentioned, I fell in love in Italy –in Genoa – with a woman originally from Naples called Livia. She was a good friend of the family I was staying with and, having just split up with her boyfriend, was staying with them as well. It was quite remarkable that we got together given that she didn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak Italian. But we both did “parlez un peu de francais”. And this proved enough to maintain a long distance relationship for about a year – sending each other parcels with letters, photos and music and having the occasional phone conversation. It was the ultimate romantic delusion – made especially so by the fact that we were conversing in ‘the language of love’. But it was never likely to last and it didn’t.

Although my travels were over, I remained a gypsy for several months, house-sitting and staying with friends. Almost a year after I had left for Europe, I finally had my own place again – another bachelor flat but this time virtually on Bondi Beach. I had always had a bit of a prejudice against Bondi, especially all the tourists, but having recently been one myself, I finally understood why so many of them flocked to this remarkable beach. And it was fantastic to just walk across the street and then be on the sand, especially in winter when it was less crowded.

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I struggled financially for a while, slowly paying off my trip and supplementing my tv work with driving taxis on the weekends. I still had a bit of ABC work but was now sharing it with my friend AM, who had taken over the reins when I went away and wasn’t too keen on handing them back when I returned. This didn’t bother me greatly as I felt it was time to move on anyway and began getting more freelance tv promo gigs (making ads for the shows). Also AM was literally a close friend now, living just up the road in Bondi. She supported me during some of my darker moments and I returned the favour, especially after her numerous splits with her boyfriend at the time – they shared the most dramatic ‘on again – off again’ relationship I’d ever seen.

As the millennium drew to a close, I was blessed to have my sister come and stay with me for Christmas. She had just returned from her own European tour, very much following in my footsteps and staying with a number of the same people. We had ourselves a Bondi Beach Chrissie – with a blow up plastic tree! A week later we went up the hill to Dover Heights to watch the spectacular NYE fireworks over Sydney Harbour. For both of us – it was a night to remember.

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The arrival of the year 2000 was a big deal everywhere (who remembers the anti-climax of the ‘millennium bug’?) but especially so in Sydney. For much of the previous decade, ‘Sydney 2000’ was an inescapable mantra – the Olympics were coming! From the beginning I was excited by the prospect – I had even stayed up till the early hours of the morning when the announcement was first made, hearing the city cheer from across the harbour in our Kirribilli flat (Trish did not stay up and was bummed to hear the news the next morning – she was not a fan of the idea). But as the years dragged on and the preparations lurched from one crisis to the next, my enthusiasm waned. And when they proposed building a stadium in my backyard of Bondi Beach – I was almost moved to protest. How dare they build such a monstrosity for the laughable ‘sport’ of beach volleyball. But they did. And about a week before the official opening, they hoisted the flags of the various volleyball countries around the parameter of the stadium. And that’s all it took to swing me back the other way – it was so exciting – the Olympics were coming!

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The night of the 2000 Olympic opening ceremony, I went to a party. Weirdly, it was actually in the building next door to where I had lived with Trish. So we had a great view of that night’s harbour side fireworks. The vibe was fantastic and everyone was in a jubilant mood. There was one woman who seemed especially jubilant – a beautiful buxom brunette named Tia (anyone picking up a pattern here?). We ended up staggering out into the night together and eventually ended up at her place in Potts Point. I found her very attractive and absolutely hilarious – like she should be hosting her own tv show. And from that point we began what turned out to be about a nine month relationship. As much as I hate to admit it, I think our downfall may have been the fact that, for the first time, I was not the bossy one in a couple. I tried to be the submissive one, as Tia was very much a force to be reckoned with. But in the end, submissiveness wasn’t really my thing.

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On the first day of the Olympics, still recovering from the night before, I happened upon someone who had an extra ticket to the men’s beach volleyball (the women’s volleyball, not surprisingly, was one of the first events to sell out). So despite my earlier distaste for the concept, I ended up inside the stadium I had once hated, cheering on the Canadian team as they upset the higher ranked Americans. I later saw a couple more events with my sister who came up from Melbourne. During that whole two weeks Sydney came alive with a great party atmosphere. And then afterwards, the good vibe continued with the Paralympics. I was doing some volunteer work for a brain injury charity and helped to take some of our group out for a day of events. It was great fun and really inspiring – until we lost one of our guys. Then it was panic stations. But we eventually found him and headed back to Bondi, exhausted.

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After my split with Tia in 2001, I went through a bit of a downer period, convinced that I would forever be destined to being a sad sack single guy, living in a building full of other lonely losers with the stale smell of grilled chops wafting through the hallways. I recall going for long walks along the beach, looking at dads playing with their kids and thinking that that ship had well and truly sailed.

One night, just after watching an especially gripping episode of the West Wing, there was a news break. A passenger plane had just flown into one of the World Trade Center towers. I sat and watched, horrified, as the next one was hit, and later as both collapsed. And I knew that I had just seen something that would change the world forever.

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Not long afterwards, I got a lucky break and was given a freelance promo producing gig at SBS, Australia’s multi-cultural network. I had been a fan of both their programming and especially their promos for years and had made it a goal to try to work there. The atmosphere was fantastic and promo producers were given a lot of creative freedom – the only rule being that we were never to use the voice over line: “It’s a show that will change your life forever”. And given the events that had just taken place, it proved to be a very interesting time to be at a broadcaster that represented a broad cross-section of Australia’s ethnic cultures.

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Towards the end of 2001, I was invited to a ‘Trailer Trash Christmas Party’ organised by a friend of mine from my NSWIT and ‘Off Air’ days, Susan. I got dressed up (or, more accurately, dressed down) in a plaid flannelette shirt and my old army pants that I still had from my Canadian Concentration Schooldays. I remember looking at the mirror and thinking “Well, I won’t be picking up anyone tonight!” Little did I know that it was about to be my last night as a sad single guy.

A Short History of Me Part Five: “New Sensations”

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In 1987 my life changed gears: new educational institution, new home and new relationship. Although I was drained from the breakdown of my marriage to Julia, I still managed to jump straight into a relationship with one of my fellow NSWIT students, Nikki. She was not only very striking but also possessed a sharp mind, a thirst for knowledge and an affinity for animals. She too had just come out of a failed marriage. Everyone was urging us to take it easy and go slowly – but we didn’t. This was mostly my fault. As we both needed somewhere new to live, it made sense to me for us to move in together. So we did – into a one bedroom flat in North Sydney, near Brett Whiteley’s place at Lavender Bay. Just me, Nikki…and her two guinea pigs. Can’t say I was a huge fan of my stinky little flat mates. Unfortunately, as compatible as Nikki and I were on many levels, it was the timing that sucked. Not only were neither of us really ready to move immediately on from our marriages, she was also seven years older and had different priorities. Plus, as in my marriage, my focus remained largely self-involved. So after only six months, our relationship seemed to kind of dissolve more than break up. But about ten years later – fate had a reprisal in store.

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Whilst my focus was still on acquiring the skills for a media career, the location had changed from the inner city and NSWIT (now UTS – University of Technology, Sydney) to the suburbs and AFTRS (Australian Film Television and Radio School). Having failed to get into AFTRS twice before, by the time I did – I wasn’t really sure it was where I wanted to go – especially after already having been a student for about five years. Fortunately, my timing was perfect. They had decided to offer a few places for one year ‘extension courses’ for applicants who had already had a bit of experience. So I signed up for an extension in producing and headed out to the boring burbs.

 

AFTRS, at least back then, was a mixed blessing. Great facilities, amazing industry access and, importantly, you actually got paid to go there. But it was a long way out – a real pain to access via public transport – the building and surrounding area were sterile (a far cry from the buzz of the inner city) and the bureaucracy was painful (though it did teach me how to work a system – like booking a production van for months on end for my personal transport).

 

It did provide some awesome opportunities, however, like when I went on an attachment to the shoot for INXS’ “Need You Tonight” clip. This will definitely be ‘stand alone post’ (SAP) at some stage. But for the record, I wasn’t really an INXS fan (though I begrudgingly liked a few of their songs). I was far more interested in seeing director Richard Lowenstein, the 80’s indie film and music clip wunderkind. But the person who made the biggest impression on me was, of course, Michael Hutchence. I had never thought that much of him as a rock star but when meeting him – was quite stunned at how different he looked in person. I remember watching him perform in front of the camera and seeing this amazingly good looking, uber-cool dude. Then, I would look at the little tv monitor and there was ‘Michael Hutchence’. Amazing transformation – far cooler in the flesh. He was also quite affable – more than happy to sign an autograph for my teenage sister – who actually was a genuine fan (and who later embellished the truth somewhat by telling her friends that I had actually directed the clip!). Anyway, the experience and the fact that it’s actually such a great song (and clip) converted me into being an INXS fan.

Definitely the biggest advantage of AFTRS was working with other like-minded students on well resourced productions. The first film I ever production managed was Greg Woodland’s “Green”, a bigger than Ben Hur environmental epic, that taught me, amongst other things, that I was never going to cut it as a production manager. I preferred assistant directing, where you were at least part of the action. It was while assisting on “A Telegram for Mrs. Edwards”, a non verbal war tragedy, that I first got to work with the stupendously talented, Kriv Stenders (who years later directed “Red Dog”). He looked the part – with his swept back blonde locks, glasses and white t-shirt. Kriv had been directing for years, starting as a Super 8 whizz kid. I was lucky enough to produce his final year film, “Horrible Man”, where we took advantage of the size of the brand new AFTRS studio by shooting an elephant (though not literally). After film school, we worked together on several music videos, including a couple for my favourite band at the time, “Mental As Anything” (SAP to come). I also produced clips for a couple of other talented AFTRS mates, David Caesar (extremely down to earth, no bullshit director of two of my all time favourite Aussie films: “Idiot Box” and “Mullet”) and Brendon Young, the Fellini fanatic. Interestingly, not one of this trio was actually enrolled in the AFTRS Directing department – they were all Cinematography students.

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No animals were harmed in “Horrible Man”

 

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“Horrible Man”

 

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Me, Kriv and Greedy on ‘World Seems Difficult’ clip

 

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Keeping my hero Reg dry

 

 

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With Brendan Young on Mental’s ‘Overwhelmed’ clip

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Brendan and a broken winged Greedy

 

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Mentals in action

 

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David Caesar directing a fruit shoot for a “My Friend the Chocolate Cake” clip

 

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Lamington anyone?

 

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Although I had moved on from NSWIT, I hadn’t abandoned my ‘baby’ –“Off Air” video magazine. I was able to talk AFTRS into letting me and the Off Air team produce it there – with much better resources of course. It felt good to infiltrate film school with my former NSWIT mates – at least two of whom ended up there shortly thereafter. In 1988, we produced the “Sink the Fleet” issue, in response to all the bi-centennial bullshit that was happening that year. For the opening sequence, we paid these kids to take model ships into the harbour just after it had rained and we filmed them, obscuring the sign that warned people not go into the harbour just after it rained. When the kids said they were feeling sick – we paid them five bucks and then got the hell away. Hope they’re still with us.

 

While that would become the final “Off Air” ever released, I was still convinced that video magazines were the medium of the future. So after AFTRS, I went door knocking and got a production company on board to help produce a video magazine that focussed on the dance party culture of the time. Hosted by popular Triple J radio personality Maynard F# Crabbes, it was called “Video Manic”. It was an interesting, though ultimately failed project. A definite highlight, however, was getting Mental As Anything guitarist and Mambo artist Reg Mombassa to interview Timothy Leary – the former LSD guru and recent convert to all things ‘cyber-delic’. Reg gave Leary a couple of his particularly out there Mambo T-shirts, which Leary declared were very ‘cyber-delic’ indeed (SAP to come).

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Manic Maynard

 

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Because AFTRS had a limited number of students, it was necessary to enlist volunteers to help crew productions. I had been on the phone to one particular volunteer several times, organising this and that for a film shoot. And then – I met her. Long dark hair, Ray Ban sunnies, black leather jacket and ruby red lips. WOW! She was also very bright, witty and good company. I fell immediately in lust. A fact of which she was obliviously unaware – until I drunkenly threw myself at her while dancing one night a party. Fortunately for me, she was not completely repulsed. And so began my love affair with the fabulous Trish.

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We took it slowly. I was by then living in a shared house in Glebe while Trish was part of an amazing household of Adelaide girls. They had moved up to Sydney the previous year into a huge freestanding house in Newtown. There was Corrie – a talented photographer who was the matriarchal figure for a couple of generations of weird and wonderful arty types. She had a teenage daughter, Morgana, who would later become a bit of rock star in an all girl group. And there was Liberty, Corrie’s stunning musician girlfriend. The house, which was chock full of extraordinary art and furniture, was always alive with activity – teens, artists, musos and big dogs – all swarming through a cloud of smoke (Drum tobacco, mostly).

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It was through this eclectic household that I first met John, who initially came over to teach us yoga on a Saturday. He was a happy chappy – a bit rotund and not what you would expect from a yoga teacher. It turns out he was much more than that – a man with an amazing story. John had cancer as a teenager, had much of his stomach removed and was given a death sentence. So he ran away from hospital, hooked up with some gypsies, learned tantric yoga, cured himself of cancer and even managed to re-grow his stomach (a fact he claims has been verified through x-rays). He then continued learning from a range of teachers from different cultures and practices: Tibetan, Aboriginal and Alchemic, to name just a few. John is the man who is responsible for my daily yoga routine and much of my ‘pluralist’ approach to spirituality (which is, by its very nature, impossible to put into any one category – though I do tend to put ‘pagan’ as my religion for the census, as it gives me a little rebellious buzz).

 

After about a year and a half, things between Trish and I ground to a halt and we split up – for about five months. I have in the past referred to this as my ‘slut period’, during which I had numerous liaisons (including time with a Spanish dancer called Salome!). Anyway, Trish and I decided not only to give it another go but to take it up a notch and moved in together soon after into a small house in Newtown, near her ex- Adelaide housemates.

 

I had been out of film school for a couple of years and was managing to eek out a living producing music clips and training videos. But this was during the recession of the early 90’s and there wasn’t a heap of work about. So I decided to get my taxi licence. While driving cabs was an eye opener, it also had a surprising upside. I had expected it to make me even more cynical about the human race. But it actually did the opposite. I soon realised that, with the exception of some genuine dickheads, most people (in Sydney at least) were actually good natured. I didn’t see that coming. Bloody hard way to earn a living though – twelve hour shifts and no guarantee that you’ll even make any money. My respect for cab drivers dramatically increased (as did my wariness – when I’m driving my car, I never try to second guess what a cab might do – I steer as clear away as possible).

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I received a very generous gift at the end of 1991. My Dad, who had returned to Albuquerque a couple of years earlier, flew me over for Christmas. It was amazing to see the city in which my first memories were formed but now with the eyes and experience of a 28 year old. This was when the smell of mesquite smoke was re-booted in my brain – a scent I had not come across in the previous 20 years. I remember that the night before Christmas, after walking around looking at the luminaries (candles in paper bags – non electric Mexican Christmas lights), we went to an abandoned hill and set off some fireworks my Dad had been saving. It was great fun – though the local dogs didn’t agree.

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IMG_5708After Christmas we went on what was dubbed ‘The Blues Cruise’ – an epic road trip in my Dad’s brand new blue pickup across Texas, to New Orleans for New Years eve (wow!), up to Memphis to see Elvis’s Gracelands on my birthday and back again. It was a very special trip and worth it’s own post at some point. But I must mention one story that has now become part of Amsden lore. All along the way we had been staying in twin rooms in fairly cheap motels. And my Dad kept talking up the New Orleans hotel he had booked. “Wait til you see it.” Well, when I finally did see it, I was impressed – very posh. Then the porter took us upstairs and opened the door to reveal a lovely room…with one bed. This literally didn’t add up. So I go in and start looking around, even checking out the ensuite just in case. But no – it was bedless. I looked at my Dad, who was by now staring at his feet as he mumbled, “Oh yeah – there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell ya.” And that is how I shared a bed with my father for a few nights. I can not even begin to describe the horror – so I won’t. Let’s just say the phrase “scarred for life” comes to mind.

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After returning from the States, I felt a bit restless and in need of a change. So Trish and I started looking for a new abode. And as luck would have it – we found one – a two bedroom unit in Kirribilli that was right on the harbour – opposite the Opera House. Weirdly, it just so happened that this was the building my Dad and I had sneaked in front of on Christmas day 1986. In one respect, it felt like a dream come true – in a city where harbour-side homes are the ultimate prize, it seemed like we had won a housing lottery. The view was always changing, depending upon what the weather and water traffic were doing. Sometimes while watching tv, the room would go dark. We’d look out the window and see a tanker passing by, completely obliterating the city lights. It was an amazing privilege to live there and easily my favourite home ever.

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The work situation had also picked up considerably, once again thanks to a bit of luck. Trish had managed to secure a position at ABC Music, the recording label for The Australian Broadcasting Corporation. This involved her making tv spots promoting their CDs and directing music clips for a range of acts. Initially I helped her out in various ways but when she decided to move across into film production, I inherited her ABC gig. This is how I ended up directing the second ever Wiggles’ music video (Trish did the first): “Dorothy the Dinosaur”. This was before they even had their different coloured skivvies and when there was actually a fifth Wiggle (perhaps not quite as bad as having been the ‘fifth Beatle’ – but close). I discovered recently that I am actually mentioned in ‘Wiggle-pedia” – surely a much higher honour than ‘Wikipedia”! It was fantastic to see them take over the world – they worked so hard and were lovely guys. When my son went through his Wiggles phase, he only ever used to wear yellow – he was in love with Greg the singer. Years later when the original line up did their farewell tour, I asked my son, by then around ten, if he wanted to go with me. He just gave me a nasty look and walked away. So I went with a friend and her young daughter (who fell asleep). I loved it and must admit, got a bit teary as they left the stage in their big red car.

 

 

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The Kirribilli years encompassed a few significant birthdays: both mine and Trish’s 30ths, and my sister’s 21st (I felt honoured when she came to Sydney to spend her special day with us – which culminated in seeing Lucinda Williams perform in a pub). But the biggest milestone of that period was actually celebrated in Perth when my father came over for his 50th. He still had quite a few mates in Perth and it was decided to throw him a big birthday bash at Clancy’s pub in Fremantle. Since many of his mates were musos, they formed a band for the occasion (which later continued on as “Charlie’s Party”). I decided to attempt to sing a re-worked version of Hank Williams Junior’s “Family Tradition” and wore an especially bizarre cowboy outfit (which came in handy a couple of weeks later when I was nominated for a Golden Guitar Award in Tamworth for a country clip I directed for ABC music). My brother played guitar and my sister two-stepped with my Dad. Priceless.

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The Kirribilli years also marked a turning point in my life. Although I still had ambitions to write (I wrote a feature script called “Dinkum Karoke”) and produce (I applied for funding for various projects), I gradually lifted my foot off the pedal. I had a steady gig with the ABC that provided a decent living as well as enough time to develop my own projects. But as time went on and the rejections mounted, I found that I was increasingly happy to take it easy and instead of pushing towards my goals, started having lots of naps (I slept through much of the 90’s).

 

It’s likely that this growing slothfulness contributed towards the end of my relationship with Trish. It was December 1996, Friday the 13th. She had just returned from a shoot in Adelaide and although we had been engaged for about a month after I had proposed on a recent visit, she had decided she’d rather move on. So instead of marriage and babies, I was staring down the barrel of bachelorhood.

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A Short History of Me Part Four: “Bright Lights, Big City”

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As the train pulled away from Perth railway station in January of 1984, I tried to comfort my girlfriend as tears slid down her face. Her family were on the platform, visually upset to see her leaving with the strange looking young man who had not only wrecked their car but was now whisking their beloved daughter off to Sin City – Sydney. Fortunately, there was also a young rockabilly couple aboard – Brett and Annette. Seeing Julia was so upset, they suggested a sure fire cure – alcohol and a game of cards. So, many hands were dealt and many drinks were drunk as our carriage rattled its way across one of the planet’s most boring expanses: the Nullarbor Plain.

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Although our ultimate destination was Sydney, we only took the train as far as Adelaide, where we then unloaded my beat up old Holden station wagon (which was no doubt thankful we didn’t drive it across the Nullarbor). We bid our new greasy haired friends farewell and promised to catch up with them when we rocked up to Sydney in a week or so. We then climbed into the Holden and headed off.

Except for brief stops at friends in Adelaide and Melbourne, we camped most of the way. It was as we were heading up the south coast of New South Wales that I made one of the biggest decisions of my life: I decided to ask Julia to marry me. I had been feeling bad that she was leaving everyone she knew and loved to strike out on an adventure that was entirely for my benefit. I thought it was a very courageous act of commitment on her part. So it seemed only fair to offer her one in return. Besides, I reasoned, it could also help us get the tertiary student living allowance (it didn’t). And the fact that I was only 21 and Julia was still 19 didn’t bother me in the slightest. Compared to my parents’ ages when they married shortly before I was born – we seemed practically middle-aged!

It was in the car park of ‘Mrs. Murphy’s Chicken Shack’ in Ulladulla that I popped the question. Julia was very surprised. It really wasn’t what she was expecting when we pulled over for a bit of a chook lunch. But being the romantic that she was, she said yes. And so after lunch, with chicken grease still shining from our lips, we were off to the Ulladulla Tourist Information kiosk to ask where we could get married. The girl behind the desk was very excited. Believe it or not – she’d never been asked that question before. After a little research, she suggested we go to the Mollymook court house up the road. What a great place to get married, we thought – Mollymook!

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But, of course, it was not that straight forward. The court was literally in session when we burst through the doors. All eyes, innocent and guilty alike, were on us. “Yes?” “Uh – we’re here to get married.” “Right. Go around to the side and see the court officer”. So we stood in line with several dodgy looking characters holding official looking bits of paper until it was our turn. “Yes?” “We’re here to get married”. “Right. You have your paperwork?” “What paperwork?” “The paperwork you filled out at least one month and a day ago.” “Oh. No. We haven’t done that.” Eyes were rolled, papers shuffled. “Ok. Here. Fill this out and then we’ll see you in a month and a day.” “Oh. We’ll be in Sydney by then.” “Good for you. You can get married there. Is that all?” “Yes”. “Good. Next!”

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The following day we drove the battered wagon into Sydney. We rang the rockabillies and told them our big news. They were very excited. Not so much our respective parents.But the biggest surprise came from Julia’s father – the man who had initially been very uncomfortable when we began ‘living in sin’. His response to our engagement: “But what’s wrong with just living together?”

In our somewhat foolish naivety, we had hoped to elope – just get married in Mollymook and then tell the world that the deed had been done. But the month and a day rule sunk that idea. Not so for Elton John – who very bizarrely was also engaged at that time – to a woman! He wanted to get married in Sydney on Valentine’s Day – so the rule was waived for his benefit. I guess things may have been different for us had I been the campest singing piano player in the world. But since I wasn’t and since Julia’s family so wanted to be there, they booked three flights to Sydney to attend our registry office wedding on March 21st, 1984. Despite their wish for a proper church wedding in Perth, Julia’s parents were very supportive in the end – even buying my op shop wedding jacket (which had possibly belonged to a 1970’s game show host) and paying for a photographer.

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FullSizeRender 8All their generosity only added to the guilt I experienced moments before the wedding. We had all caught a cab into the city and were for some reason walking through Woolworth’s department store (we must have been quite a sight). I got separated from the rest and experienced a fleeting case of cold feet. I was briefly tempted to take off, if for no other reason than to give Julia a great sob story: “He abandoned me in Woolies on the way to the altar!” But, fortunately, I’m not a total scumbag and the moment passed. We had a short, simple ceremony, did some photos in front of the Opera House and Bridge and had dinner at the revolving restaurant on top of Sydney Tower. Elton John – eat your heart out!

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Those first six months in Sydney were tough. We initially lived in a shared house with a bunch of bong happy hippies. That didn’t really work. Then we moved into a tiny bedsit in Kings Cross. That was even worse. It wasn’t until we moved into the top half of a house in Surry Hills that we started to really enjoy our new city. About a year later we found a cute little miner’s cottage across the bridge in North Sydney, opposite the mayor’s mansion. Despite having an outside toilet and a shower that could only be accessed through a hole in the kitchen wall, it had a certain charm and was easy walking distance to several spots on the harbour.

NSWIT 2The whole incentive of moving across the continent to Australia’s biggest city was so that I could pursue my dream of some sort of media career. Despite being interviewed the previous year, I had not been accepted into the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS). But as it turned out, my second choice proved to have been much better option. Having already completed nearly half of a communications degree at Murdoch University, I was accepted into the New South Wales Institute of Technology (NSWIT) as a mature aged student (at the grand old age of 21). This would be the only way I was ever going to get into this highly popular course – the matriculation score needed for school leavers was just below that required for studying medicine. And sure enough – the students who were straight out of school ran circles around me intellectually (though not an overly difficult task).

The course at Murdoch was good but it all stepped up a couple of gears at NSWIT. The media lecturers were the best in the country – they even had written our text-books! I remember one lecturer who talked about the impending ‘information age’ – where soon we could all access any information that was imaginable. I remember thinking – “That sounds boring – why would you want to do that?”

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FullSizeRenderBut it was the audio visual side of things that really excited IMG_5683me. Despite having already done numerous videos in Perth, the first group project I was involved in was a tape/slide show. At first I was less than impressed with the concept. But then I suggested we do ours on Sydney’s derelicts, with whom I had recently become fascinated. This involved approaching drunken deros, and once consent was granted, photographing and recording them. The sound and images were then married together as a presentation. It was an incredible experience – especially the night I spent at a men’s shelter, The Mathew Talbot. I used that experience a couple of years later for a short story I entered in the ‘Year of Youth Writing Competition’. Amazingly, the story, ‘Byron’s Rose’, was selected and published in the Penguin anthology: ‘Kissing the Toad”.

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Sydney had a thriving music and cabaret scene in the 1980’s and having access to video equipment was a great way to meet musos and performers. “Hey – I love what you do. Want a free video?” This is how I met the Dadaist comedy troupe ‘Funny Stories’ and the country music cabaret act ‘The Gone Rong Girls’ – whose specialty was Nancy Sinatra and Tammy Wynette songs. They performed at Julia’s 21st birthday party in a Glebe gallery. Great night. And I did a short animated 16mm film of one of the ‘Funny Stories’ member’s monologues called ‘Worry’ that was later shown on ABC TV and nominated for a couple of awards. But the epic undertaking that defined my time at NSWIT was a video magazine series called “Off Air”.

IMG_5667I’m not sure that I’ve had many ‘eureka moments’ in my life but I know I’ve had at least one. It was 1985 and I was sitting in a screening of NSWIT student videos – everything from music clips to experimental drama. As I was watching these slightly rough-edged but absolutely innovative works, it suddenly came to me – why not compile these pieces, put them on vhs, then package and sell them in bookshops and record stores? I put the idea to some of my fellow students and the NSWIT staff and the reaction was enthusiastically positive. The idea evolved into also doing some specific ‘magazine’ type reports and interviews. And in October 1985, issue #1 of ‘Off Air – a video cassette magazine’ was unleashed onto the world (well, inner city Sydney at least). The accompanying program urged viewers to “feel free to treat it like you would any magazine: be selective – watch what seems interesting and fast forward through anything else. The idea of ‘Off Air’ is simply to provide a new and entertaining medium for talent that might otherwise be overlooked.”FullSizeRender 15

And so began a journey that would last two and half years, result in seven issues and span two media institutions. Some highlights included covering the 1986 Adelaide Fringe Festival (featuring an early outing from the ‘Doug Anthony All Stars’), a rambunctious interview with two members of punk outfit ‘The Damned’ and an in-depth investigative piece into the introduction of ‘pay for play’ for music videos. But the biggest coup for ‘Off Air’ was interviewing Nick Cave for issue #2, released in December 1985.

FullSizeRender 14This is worthy of a stand-alone post, which I will definitely do at some stage. But generally, I was very impressed with how funny Nick was (off camera at least). He was very dry (though not literally – had a drink in his hand the whole way through and God knows what pumping through his veins). He was a bit cantankerous but that wasn’t such a surprise. What did startle me was when, at the end of the interview, while we were doing cut away ‘noddies’ of the nervous and inexperienced interviewer, Nick Cave started instructing her on how to do them. “No – not like that. Like this (holding his chin and nodding furiously). Like – ‘yes – that’s very interesting Nick!’” Of course, this was gold – so I included it in the final edit.

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Some of the talented ‘Off Air’ crew

‘Off Air’ was very much a collaborative effort and many talented people were involved. But it was my baby – or so I felt. Consequently, I became extremely driven and obsessed. And sadly, this impacted on my relationship with Julia. I was very stressed and irritable and not much fun to live with. Plus I began to feel that I wasn’t being fair to Julia. She deserved, and at times demanded, to be my priority. And she no longer was. So I kind of intentionally sabotaged things by committing the most unoriginal sin. This hurt her very much but even then she wanted to find a way to make things work. But I didn’t. The marriage ended towards the close of 1986.

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I feel very blessed to have had Julia as my first love. She was and remains an extraordinary person. I’m happy to say that she later found a far better, less self-involved partner and went on to raise two beautiful children in the Blue Mountains while contributing to the community as a social worker. Though we very much live separate lives, we still stay in touch and attended each other’s second weddings. Julia will always have a special place in my heart.

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It turned out that 1986 was a bad year for Amsden marriages. After over twenty years together, my parents also split.  As this meant that my father would have had to spend Christmas on his own in Perth, he did an extraordinary thing – he hitch hiked across the country and landed on my doorstep on Christmas morning. It was so good to see him. I was still reeling from the aftermath of my own split with Julia and generally exhausted. Moments after he arrived, we went for a walk down to the harbour. We somehow managed to worm our way in between a couple of buildings and ended up in a great spot opposite the Opera House and in the shadow of the bridge. Little did we know that we were standing in front of what would be, in about another five years, my harbour side home.

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A Short History of Me Part Three: “A Land Down Under”

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Unlike my son, who at the age of twelve is already a bit of a jet setting world traveler, I did not board my first commercial airliner until I was sixteen. But when I did – I rapidly clocked up some serious sky miles. In August of 1979, my family boarded a flight from Winnipeg to Vancouver. Disappointingly, we only had a stop over at the airport before then heading south to California. There we were met by my uncle and spent time with him and my Granny from Colorado. Sadly, this would be the last time I ever saw her. Then from California it was over the Pacific and onto Honolulu. After a couple of days on the beach, it was time for the marathon leg – Honolulu to Sydney. When we landed, they sprayed the entire cabin with pesticide. Perhaps they knew that there was a Canadian family of five on board with lice lurking in their hair. Not taking any chances on the success or otherwise of the pesticide, my father was dispatched to an all night chemist for lice shampoo while the rest of us collapsed at our Kings Cross hotel. The next day, suitably de-loused, we boarded our fifth jet within a week for the five hour flight across our new continent to Perth.Euky-Bear-Nitz-Blitz

I remember how we all laughed as we drove through Perth for the first time, looking out the window at all the greenery and exclaiming: “And this is supposed to be winter – ha! This is paradise!”. Once we arrived at the house, we dragged our bags inside and immediately felt a bit of a chill. No problem – all we had to do was turn up the central heating. So we looked. And we looked. And all we found was a tiny little electric bar heater. So we all put on several ‘sweaters’ each, huddled over the heater and proceeded to experience the coldest winter of our lives, dumbfounded by a country that didn’t believe in centrally heated homes.

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There were other shocks in store, though some were imagined – like when my little brother woke me the next morning screaming: “They’ve got monkeys in Australia – they’ve got monkeys!” Now, I didn’t think monkeys were on the list of strange local animals but I wasn’t entirely sure. So I went outside, half expecting to see long limbed primates swinging from the trees. Instead, I heard a chorus of cackling, which, especially to a wide eyed eight year old, might sound a lot like monkeys. “Um – I’m pretty sure that’s some kind of bird, Ian.” And so we were introduced to what soon became my favourite bird, the laughing kookaburra.

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But there were other very real things that were unique to our new homeland. Opening hours especially blew our minds. We had come from a country where supermarkets were open seven days a week until about nine or ten at night. But on our first Saturday afternoon in Perth, when we headed out to do our weekly shopping, we discovered that virtually everything shut at midday on Saturdays – and remained closed until Monday morning. But don’t worry – they stayed open till nine on Thursday nights. What the??? And forget about fueling your car on the weekend. Most ‘petrol stations’ (“But we want gas!”) were shut all weekend, except for a few scattered ‘roster stations’. If you didn’t have enough in the tank to make it the nearest roster station – tough titties. And we soon learned that should someone, especially a tradesman, ever tell you “She’ll be right, mate”, you may as well abandon all hope.

But on the upside – I was no longer sentenced to Canadian Concentration School. In fact, not only did I finally get my wish of attending a co-ed high school, it also happened to be called ‘Hollywood High’. Perfect! And in a rather interesting move on part of the school, it was decided that, rather than complete the last term of year ten, which I had just finished in Canada, I would be leapfrogged to the end of year eleven. This limited the sort of subjects I took (bye bye physics and chemistry) and proved to be somewhat of a challenge. But hey – it was nothing compared to canoeing 850 miles or being assaulted with a wooden paddle.

My biggest challenge turned out to be finding acceptance in an Australian school with the name ‘Chuck’. In Canada I would cop flak via ‘upchuck’ and ‘how much wood would a woodchuck chuck’ references. But in a country where my name was synonymous with the act of vomiting (or ‘chundering’ or ‘spewing’ or ‘driving the porcelain bus’) – I couldn’t have been an easier target. Those first few months were rough. But my skin thickened and my resolve strengthened. I found the peer group I wanted to be a part of (the guys who were smart but not nerds, who smoked a bit of dope but weren’t druggies) and basically hung around them, copping barb after barb, until they finally gave up and just accepted me for the weird and mildly amusing ‘Yank’ (arrrggg!) that I was.

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Of course the main attraction of a co-ed school was exactly that – I was no longer surrounded entirely by testosterone pumping teens but, at last, got to mix with the opposite sex. And although in some ways I struggled with this (like most teenage boys – in fact – like most males), in other ways I actually found it far easier to have ‘real’ conversations with girls. Consequently, I developed a few fairly close friendships with some Hollywood Girls. Of course that’s all they ever were – just friends. Though there was one exception, a girl I could not only talk to but with whom I also felt a certain chemistry. But she had a boyfriend – a university student no less – so that was pretty much that. Until… she split up with him shortly after we ‘graduated’ (graduating doesn’t really happen in Australia – you just sort of finish high school in a fairly unceremonious manner). She then invited me to a party. And post party – she kissed me. I was over the moon! Until two days later – when she said she was getting back together with her ex-boyfriend. And thus resulted my first ever broken heart.

My 18th birthday had long been this magical date within my family circle – often referred to during heated exchanges. “When I’m 18 – I’m out of here!” “Good! Only 12 more years to go!” In fact, it was ten days after my 18th birthday when I moved out (but I had been away camping for about a week of that period). Because most of my mates were still 17 and none quite in the hurry that I was, I moved into a ‘granny flat’ by myself at the back of a house that was, strangely enough, owned by a granny. I was so happy – though occasionally a little lonely.

Although I did well enough in my matriculation exams to earn a faculty of arts offer at the University of Western Australia (where my father was still lecturing in anthropology), I decided I had earned a year off. I’d like to point out that this was decades before the concept of a ‘gap year’ had become a standard option for school leavers. So I would like to take some credit for starting this trend. Anyway, I had a fantastic year accumulating ‘real life’ experiences like working as a labourer for a landscape gardener (extremely hard, hot work) and moving in with a couple of mates and getting the dole (far more fun, not work).

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At the end of my ‘gap year’, I had itchy feet. I was desperate to see more of my new country. So I did what a number of my peers did back then – I hitch hiked from Perth to Adelaide to Melbourne to Sydney. Then back again. The start of my trip coincided with a visit from a few of my Canadian mates, so it was fun to at least begin the journey with them (I remember that they were obsessed with ‘Men at Work’, who I hated, but who later became especially huge in Canada). For much of my journey I had glandular fever and remember having an out of body experience while waiting for a ride in the blistering South Australian sun. A particular highlight of the trip was seeing the Clash at the old Capital Theatre in Sydney – not once but twice (we used our pass outs from the previous night to get back in). I fell in love with Sydney and had been accepted into a communications degree at Macquarie University. But it was immediately obvious that it would not be an easy city in which to survive as a student. So I returned to Perth and began communications at Murdoch University.

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Murdoch came onto my radar the previous year when my Hollywood High mate David started the course there. Like him, I was attracted to how one could do some traditional arts subjects (philosophy, literature, political theory) as well as some fun stuff (film, tv and theatre). Even though David decided to have his year off when I started, we were both in a very out there theatrical interpretation of Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”. At one point in the piece, I was go-go dancing on stage to The Dead Kennedy’s version of “Viva Las Vegas” – in a loin cloth! While I enjoyed the thrill of the theatre, I became much more attracted to the audio visual side of things. David went the other way and headed to Adelaide to embark on a theatrical career that later included directing Circus Oz (he also ended up doing the film course at Swinbourne, has directed documentaries and written a couple of books – a classic overachiever!).

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I imagine that going to uni is a special time in most people’s lives and it was certainly the case for me. I loved the stimulation of learning about things I was genuinely interested in. And then, of course, there was the social side. I was fortunate enough to meet someone there who, though not  my brother, within minutes of meeting, felt like he was. In fact, Duncan and I looked vaguely similar and were on occasion mistaken for siblings. It was an honour. I was also friends with a wonderful young woman, Rae, who soon partnered up with Duncan. Even though they have lived across the country from me for over three decades now, I still believe we have a very special bond, forged in those heady days at Murdoch.

In 1982 I was at a party when I saw the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen: long dark hair, pale skin and amazing eyes. I, of course, did the natural thing and stayed well away as a conga line of young jackals vied for her attention. This beauty was obviously way out my league. I left the party and didn’t give her another thought. But there she was a few weeks later at a night club, accompanied by a friend of mine (possibly the most successful jackal from the party). When he went to go get drinks, we chatted. Feeling no pressure to impress, I was relaxed and natural and we had an animated conversation. And that was that. Until a few weeks later when yet another friend rocked up to my place wanting to borrow a coat hangar to break into the car of his new girlfriend, who had locked her keys inside. Lo and behold, it was her. Keys rescued and that, once again, was that. Until the next week when she came to my place herself and invited me out to a gig while my mate was away camping. This felt a little weird but I agreed. And we had a great time – talking well into the night. And so began my love affair with the extraordinary Julia.

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Although I had already experienced heartbreak, I hadn’t tasted true love before. And it was life altering. But it could have been tragically short lived. A few months after we’d been a couple, we were driving on a gravel road in the country when I lost control and rolled the car (her father’s car!). We were upside down in a ditch, unharmed but in shock. So much so that, once the car was pulled back up to the road by a farmer with a tractor, we calmly got inside, the caved in roof just millimetres above our heads, and drove the wreck for five hours back to Perth. Julia’s mother was understandably hysterical when we arrived. But to his credit, her father, a true English gentleman, calmly walked around his beloved car, surveying the damage. I am forever grateful to that man for not throttling me then and there.

Not long afterwards, Julia and I moved in together to a fantastic apartment across from Cottesloe beach. We developed friendships with two very different couples within the building (‘the hippies’ and ‘the hair dressers’) and, despite the occasional lovers’ tiff, lived a fairly blissful existence.

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After three semesters of Murdoch, I took a break and got a great gig at a teacher’s college – handing out audio visual gear to the young teachers in training. This also gave me access to all the gear and I took the opportunity to make a short video movie about a psycho killer (in a spooky casting co-incidence, the guy I got to play the killer ended up being man hunted across the state a few years later after a series of armed robberies).

Towards the end of 1983, I was flown from Perth to Sydney for an interview for the screenwriters’ stream of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. This was largely because of a short script I had written at Murdoch about, funnily enough, a car accident. The night before my flight coincided with the ‘Australia ll’s America’s Cup victory (and Bob Hawke ‘s proclamation that “any boss who fired someone for not coming into work was a mug”). The interview went okay, though I think my ignorance of certain Australian cultural references (like Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series) probably let me down. But it was while walking along George street before my flight back that I made the decision that, whether I got in or not, Sydney would be my new home.

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In January of 1984, I turned 21. To celebrate, my parents bravely hired the local yacht club for a huge party. My mate Duncan’s new band, ‘Pride and Punishment’, had their debut gig. And ‘Chad’s Tree’, who I had done a cheap music clip for, were the main act. It was an amazing night. Surrounded by all my friends, I felt like I was the centre of the universe (perhaps not an unusual feeling for twenty one year olds). Within days of the party, Julia and I packed up what we could, heaved it into my old Holden station wagon, loaded it aboard an eastbound train and bade Perth farewell forever.

A Short History of Me Part Two: “Oh Canada”

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In the summer of 1970, I was packed into the back of our red VW wagon and shuttled north from New Mexico towards the Canadian border. Shortly after spending nearly a year in Alaska living with the Inuit for his major research project, my father returned to Albuquerque and received an offer to lecture in anthropology at the University of Manitoba. My parents thought Canada was a preferable option to a country that was by now at war with itself at campuses across the nation. Me – I don’t recall having an opinion one way or the other. I didn’t really have any strong ties to Albuquerque at that stage. I think I may have been intrigued by the idea of a place with snow on the ground for months at a time but generally wasn’t overly enthused to be swapping countries. I guess it was the sort of ambivalence only a seven year old can muster.

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We drove into Winnipeg one day in August and almost immediately ended up at some big rock festival celebrating one hundred and fifty years since the province of Manitoba had been established. It was supposed to have been held at the local football stadium but crappy weather forced it next door into the covered ice hockey arena. I remember walking in and seeing a smoky haze hovering over thousands of hippies – many throwing fresbies. This was not my first long haired rock fest (after all – I was a child of the sixties who hung out at a university campus) but it was definitely the biggest – and loudest. I remember bouncing along to Iron Butterfly’s epic ‘In a Goda La Vida’. Who I don’t remember seeing were the headliners – a band starting to make quite a name for themselves. Perhaps I was exhausted by the epic journey north. Or maybe the thick herbal hippy haze knocked me cold. Either way, for years I’ve worn it as a strange badge of honour that I managed to sleep though Led Zeppelin.

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Our first place of residence in a city known for its long harsh winters was a three bedroom townhouse located on…wait for it… ‘Snow Street’! It was also near a golf course, a swamp (both of which provided great playgrounds) and a newly opened hospital (where my split head was sewn up after a misadventure with an unforgiving gas meter). There were also a number of other kids in the the townhouse complex so I was no longer short of playmates.

My first Canadian school was Dalhousie Elementary – a brand new windowless building with several ‘open classrooms’. For a child easily distracted, this should have been a disaster but in fact the opposite occurred. It was decided that I would repeat first grade, given my struggles with reading. After just a few months of open plan learning however, I suddenly clicked and started finally getting it. So I was hoisted back up into the second grade, where I was a pair of scissors in the school parade and an Inuit (of course) for our rendition of “It’s a Small World After All”.

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It was at Dalhousie that I met my first Australian, a lovely female teacher from Sydney who fascinated us with tales of a strange land with bizarre buildings, bridges and creatures. She must have taken a shine to me because I recall going to her nearby house for lunches and after school to play with her two kids. Of course neither of us had the slightest clue that less than a decade later I too would be experiencing her weird homeland.

When ‘Snow Street’ finally lived up to its name, I was so excited. In no time at all there was heaps of the white stuff everywhere. It didn’t take long to realise, however, that this was not the snow of my Colorado Christmas but what was called ‘dry snow’. Dry snow? What the hell? How is that even possible? But the upshot was – there would be no Frosty or even snow balls made with this powdery stuff – it just fell apart in your hands like sand. Terrific.

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December 3 1970 was a landmark day in my life. After years of desperate pleading, my parents had finally come through and delivered my greatest desire: a little brother. And they obviously thought this kid was pretty special – not only did he get his own unique name – he even got an extra one! Ian George Benjamin Amsden. Impressive name. And an impressive kid – virtually fearless. But my getting acquainted with him was initially delayed. Shortly after the birth, the newborn had to stay in hospital for much of December. This led to my most uneasy Christmas ever.  And a somewhat unsettling guest.

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A friend of my father’s from his Alaskan days was in town and was invited for Christmas dinner. He was a very interesting man – especially given the fact that he had lost several toes to frostbite. Now, as a little kid experiencing his first ever Canadian winter, it did my head in to think that it could get so cold that bits of you could snap right off. Obviously the only thing to do was to stay inside for six months!

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Before the next school year began in September 1971, we moved to an amazing house, conveniently located across the road from my new school (which proved handy when I used the five minute warning bell as my alarm clock, throwing on some clothes and staggering across the street for my first lesson of the day). Compared to the townhouse, this place was huge – four stories including a basement – and with beautiful wood paneling throughout. It was also one block away from my soon to be best friend, who claimed not only to be living in a house where Neil Young grew up but to also have the Young’s original piano in his living room. I remember not being overly impressed at the time, mostly because I thought Neil Young had a weedy voice and boring songs. However, it didn’t stop be from pulling this story out in later years to impress my Australian mates who were big fans of Mr Young.

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Winnipeg does actually experience relatively hot weather (and HUGE mosquitos) during its summer months when it holds a couple of festivals. There’s an interesting multi-cultural one called Folklarama where community centres serve different ethnic foods and Manisphere – the annual fair with its carnival rides and sugar coated crap. And it was in the summer of ’72 that I was so excited to be heading to Manisphere – an outing that I had been looking forward to for months. But it was not to be. The day before we were to go, my brother decided to eat some sort of unidentified mushrooms. He was rushed to hospital and thankfully was alright. But the incident proved too much  and that night my parents headed back to the hospital – this time to deliver my sister – Kirsten Joy Amsden. Honestly – it took me at least a few days to appreciate this ‘Joy’ that had robbed me of Manisphere. But I soon grew to love the hairless wonder and was very relieved when about a year later she survived her own close call with death after she stopped breathing on the way back from our summer holiday.

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But of course, it is the season of winter that defines Winnipeg. And the sport that is played in winter is ice hockey. I was never a very good skater but had a talent for getting in the way of things, so had thought maybe it’d be a good idea to become a goalie. It was not even close to a good idea. Firstly, I had some ability but it was sporadic – good games and bad games. No one likes a goalie who has a bad game (except for the other team). Secondly, it was freezing – or to be precise, about thirty degrees below freezing. Almost all of our games were outside and it’s the one position where you are always standing around, usually not doing much. And lastly – it’s bloody dangerous! Other kids far more talented than I were using long sticks to whack frozen discs of rubber in my general direction – and it was my job to get in the way. I remember one time getting in the way with my face. True, I was wearing a mask but this was the time before compulsory cage masks – when hard plastic masks (like the one made famous in the ‘Halloween’ horror movies) were ‘cool’. The puck flattened me and knocked me out briefly. I came to in time to see the coach standing over me saying – “Good save Chuck! Now up you get.”

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The beginning of my teenage years were, like most people’s, awkward. For grade seven I began junior high school at “River Heights” (or as my sister dubbed it – “Rubber Heights”). I did okay academically and socially. But at home it was a different story. Always a fairly strong willed individual, this accelerated somewhat once the hormones kicked in. This resulted in repeated conflicts with my parents, which inevitably would lead to me being grounded. Unfortunately, it got to the stage that, since I felt I was pretty much permanently grounded, I decided that I would run away. This sounds far more dramatic than it actually was. I believe I spent one, maybe two nights, sleeping in my best friend’s brother’s car – parked about a block away from our home. I do remember my dad looking for me one day as my friends and I literally ran away from him, laughing. I feel ashamed thinking back on this now as it must have been a gut wrenching experience for him.

But in the end – the joke was on me. My brief running away episode was the final straw for my parents and they finally followed through on a long standing threat – they sent me to boarding school. Or as I later called it – ‘Concentration School’.

Now, my two years at ‘Concentration School’ (aka ‘St. Johns Cathedral Boys School’) is definitely worth a stand alone post and I intend to eventually write one. But in the meantime – here’s a little taste. The school was set up in the early sixties to turn boys into men – mentally, physically and spiritually. This involved the following: canoe trips ranging from 350 – 850 miles; weekly winter snow shoe (think tennis rackets on your feet) expeditions between 20 – 50 miles; the boys performing all cooking, cleaning, laundry and maintenance duties as well as selling frozen chickens and sausages door to door; and – the big one – discipline via receiving “swats” from a wooden paddle on one’s butt cheeks. The whole idea was to push boys to the edge and beyond – to prove to themselves what they could achieve. Unfortunately, there were casualties. More than a dozen boys and two teachers tragically lost their lives on a canoe trip at the end of my first year.

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Towards the end of my second year at St. Johns, I began a campaign to convince my parents that I had in fact already come a long way and was now ready to re-enter normal society and, most importantly, attend a co-ed high school. I wasn’t making much ground however. But then, divine providence intervened – my father was offered a lecturing position at the University of Western Australia in Perth. Yippeeee! My parents gave me the option of staying behind to finish my final two years at Concentration School but I declined, thinking Australia was a preferable option. Frankly, even Antarctica would have been a preferable option (and I would already have had the snow shoe skills to help me get around).

So in August of 1979, almost exactly nine years since arriving in Winnipeg as an only child, I was now getting ready to move to the under side of the world as part of a family of five.

FullSizeRender 13There is no doubt that Canada had a huge impact on who I had become as a sixteen year old. Despite officially remaining an American citizen, I had adopted many things from my Canadian upbringing – including, ironically, a disdain for all things American. Moving to Australia helped give me some perspective on this phenomenon. Although Canada and Australia both have British and American cultural influences, geography plays a big role. Australia is far enough away from other countries to have developed its own unique identity. Canada, however, sharing a border with the most influential nation in the western world, gets culturally swamped by the USA and, naturally, desperately tries to define its points of difference. This pretty much translates as a chip on its collective shoulder. It’s what I call the ‘little brother country syndrome’. And it is the main reason why, as I would soon discover, that the worst possible question you can ever ask a Canadian is: “So – what part of the States are you from?”

A Short History of Me Part One: “Born in the USA”

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I was a teenage love child – born on the fifth day of 1963 in the snow covered Colorado Rockies to parents married six months earlier in the neighboring state of New Mexico. As my father tells it, he was in the Boulder Hospital waiting room watching the nurses walk past with bundles of laundry. Suddenly, he saw a nurse with a load of laundry that looked like him. It was the large satellite dish ears that would have been the dead give away. It turns out I also inherited his freckle gene (as a little boy who looked like a walking chocolate chip cookie, I was promised that the freckles would fade from my face when I grew up – they didn’t), his relatively quick wit, his relatively quick metabolism (the skinny gene) and… his name. Yes, I was dubbed Charles Wynn Amsden Junior. I have since spent my life being called Chuckie, Little Chuck, Chuck, Upchuck, Chuckles, Charlie and, of course, Charles. What my dad didn’t pass onto me was my lop sided face. I had thought for years that this was due to a forceps birth but have since been told that I entered this world forceps free. So I suppose this Picasso-esque feature is uniquely mine.

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Little Kid – Big Ears

I have no memory of Boulder but many of Albuquerque New Mexico, where we later moved. There were bunches of red chilies hanging from front porches. ‘Old Town’, with its mixture of Navajo jewellery, cowboy shops and the world’s best sweets store with candy rocks and sugar crystals on a string. And there was the wonderful scent of mesquite smoke in the air – a lost memory that was re-booted after a visit to Albuquerque more than twenty years later (turns out smell is a powerful memory trigger).

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Little Kid – Big Mouth

I don’t have many recollections of other children, partially because we moved around quite a bit but mostly because I was surrounded by university students: my parent’s peers – all of whom were childless. There are two kids I do recall though – ‘Didi’ and ‘Dodo’ – our Mexican neighbors for at least a few months. I doubt those were their actual names – but ‘Dodo’ was a boy (the youngest) and ‘Didi’ a girl. I don’t recall the specifics but vaguely remember that we had numerous adventures in an era where even the littlest of kids took off in the morning and returned home in the evening, dirty, scruffy and hungry.

The upside of being surrounded by adults was that I felt like they were my equals and was often treated as such. The downside was when my parents reminded me that this was not the case and I was in fact a little kid who had to do what he was told. These episodes often sparked such a fierce blind rage within me that I would bang my head – against walls, floors – any hard surface would do. Yes – I was a ‘head banger’ long before heavy metal made it a popular past time.

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Carrying on the trend I started in the 60’s

Yet there was also a flip side to this angry, manic behavior. I remember having a rocking chair and would rock for quite some time without saying a word. This would usually occur after waking, either in the morning or especially after a nap. My parents might try to engage me but often I would remain silent, rocking back and forth. One exception to this was on the morning of my fourth birthday when my parents saw me rocking away and wished me a happy birthday. My reply: “It’s not my birthday until tonight when I have my cake and get my presents”. Yep – I was a little brat (but one who was thrilled to unwrap a G.I. Joe later that night).

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Just don’t call it a doll!

This was also the time when my love affair with tv began. Batman, The Green Hornet, The Beverly Hillbillies, Get Smart, Bewitched, Gilligan’s Island, Bonanza, The Lone Ranger and I Love Lucy. I didn’t just love Lucy – I loved them all – and then some. Looking back, the 60’s really were a golden era of television – especially half hour comedies. There was a level of imagination and craftsmanship that doesn’t exist in today’s sitcoms. Sure – we are currently in another golden tv era but these are mostly drama (or ‘dramedy’) series. Of course trying to watch these 60’s shows now is usually disappointing. But at the time – it was magic.

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One of my best ever childhood memories did involve some tv magic – and two very thoughtful parents. One night I was asked to dress in my Batman pyjamas and then told we were going out. Yipppeee – no bedtime! As we drove through the city, I was very excited – hoping we were going to Baskin and Robins for ice cream. So I was disappointed when we pulled into the parking lot of a car seller. Oh well – beat being in bed. So I accompanied my parents inside and there it was – the Bat Mobile! I nearly wet myself – I was so excited. Of course being a little guy in his Batman PJs, I got to actually sit inside the coolest car ever. So instead of Baskin and Robins – I got Batman and Robin (well –their car at least).

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Best car ever

There were also movies that swept me away. While I saw the usual Disney classics (and like most kids, was traumatized when Bambi’s mother got shot), the movies that really had an impact on me were pitched to a much older audience. I saw ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ with my dad, ‘Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid’ and ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ with a family friend (and it really blew my mind – didn’t have a clue what was going on but was completely transported). But the 60’s movie experience that had the biggest impact on me (and caused the biggest stink) was seeing ‘Easy Rider’ at the drive-in with my parents. Wow! Not long afterwards I was asked by my Granny what I wanted to be when I grew up. “I want to be a hippy and ride a motor bike and smoke grass.” My parents were then marched into the kitchen where I heard my Granny shout several words I hadn’t heard before.

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My role models

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Me, Frosty & Granny

My Granny was also part of another, less controversial, episode of my childhood – my best Christmas ever. In the winter of ’68 she, her husband and my teenage uncle hosted our family, my adventurous Californian Uncle and his gorgeous wife for a white Colorado Christmas. They say everyone has a stand out Christmas and this was mine. Making a snowman, sledging and being the only grandchild on the scene all made for a magical holiday. There were tears on Christmas morning, however, when Santa’s letter confessed to his reindeer having eaten my beloved beagle, Chewy. All was rectified once a very live and slobbering Chewy was released into the living room. For years I thought that Santa had a bit of mean streak, though I now believe this was my teenage uncle’s mischief making.

My first year of school occurred in the last year of the decade. Interestingly I seem to recall more about what happened in the huge playground and cafeteria than in the classroom. This may explain why I spent much of the summer break alone in the cafeteria with a reading tutor. To his credit, this guy pulled out all the stops, including comic books, in an attempt to interest me in reading. But I remember just staring off into space, towards the shuttered kitchen. At that stage of my life, reading wasn’t really floating my boat.

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Not actually me – but a kindred spirit

Looking back at my first seven years as a strong willed, little freckle faced American during some of the most turbulent times in that country’s history, I wonder to what degree my personality has been forged by this period. After all – there’s that old Jesuit saying – “Give me the boy until seven and I’ll show you the man.” And although it’s now been over four decades since my time as a Yank, certain things like my taste buds (I still love the combo of peanut butter and chocolate) and my appreciation of American football (possibly the most confusing sport ever created) – things like these remain evidence of an American upbringing.

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YUM!

But change was on its way. At the age of seven and a half, I was about to do something that, in only a matter of a few years, would have me despise all things American. I moved to Canada.

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Oh Canada!