Snap Shot #1: Almost a Dog’s Breakfast

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It’s days since the deluge but the Bondi sky remains heavy and grey. I am taking Nitro the two-toned Cavoodle for his morning walk. Am feeling flat but hoping that my daily yoga stretch and meditation in the park will soon revive me. We get to the park and the dog is unleashed. I keep an eye out, waiting for him to assume the position that will require me to shove my hand into a blue plastic bag. But the only position he assumes is one of hunter as he leaps onto a lame lorikeet parrot. We are all surprised by this, especially Nitro, whose habitual chasing of birds has so far been without triumph. After a couple of seconds of shock, I am shouting like a mad man and yanking the bird from the furry jaws of death. Then I awkwardly attempt to re-leash an excited canine with one hand while holding a freaking parrot with the other. This proves rather painful as the lorikeet’s little beak pinches my hand, biting down like his life depends upon it (and from his point of view, it probably does). Somehow I manage to tuck the bird under my arm, safely padded by my hoody, leash the killer Cavoodle and head back home. Whilst walking I decide that I will drop the dog off at a neighbour’s and take the bird to the veterinary hospital in Bondi Junction. I took an injured bird there years ago and was surprised by how Hollywood handsome the vet was. At that stage, neither of us had a clue that he would later achieve celebrity status as the star of the “Bondi Vet” TV series (which conveniently ignores its true location since “Bondi Junction Vet” isn’t nearly as sexy). Once Nitro is safely enclosed at the neighbour’s, I head home, put the lorikeet into a box and then wash the tiny wounds on my hands. I look for some disinfectant but the best I can do is splash around some mouthwash. I know it’s supposed to kill mouth germs but am unsure if that extends to bird mouths. The car is parked a block away, so I walk along holding a hairdryer box like it’s a gift for the baby Jesus. As I enter the car, I notice that the inside of one hand is starting to ache. Is this the onset of some strange avian disease? And just how do you contract bird flu? Doing my best not imagine that this is the beginning of my end, I arrive at the vet. Dr Hollywood is rarely around these days, most recently sighted in an African jungle hosting a show featuring a number of dubious ‘celebrities’  all wanting to get the hell out of there. So another vet inquires about what’s in the hair dryer box. I unveil the little guy and the diagnosis is immediate: beak and feather disease. He says that most vets put such afflicted birds to sleep but that they won’t. Instead, they’ll take him and put him out the back in a little sanctuary they have. Lucky birdy. Or lying vet. I mention that I ended up with several wounds on my hands. I’m told not to worry as the disease is only passed on between birds. Seeing an opportunity too tempting to resist, I quip: “So I don’t need to worry about my beak and feathers?” Having achieved the sought after chuckles, I leave the bird behind and head back for another attempt at walking the dog.

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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 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!