Everyday mysteries #1: What goes up but never comes down?

While walking to the train station on my way to work each day, I see a strange sight. It’s a notice on this seat to warn people that it has just been repainted:Wet paint 1

The only problem is, that seats looks as if it hasn’t been painted since last century. The notice has been there for many weeks at least, and is slowly being worn away by rain, hail and wind.

Which leads me to one of life’s everyday mysteries: why do people who put up notices never take them down again?

I see it everywhere: notices pinned to bulletin boards about meetings that happened two years ago, flyers advertising guest speakers at public events from three months ago, upcoming events on websites that have been and gone last week, last month, last year.

Where I work at a university, if you have to change class rooms or cancel a class, besides sending out an email to everyone you usually pin a notice to the door advising students of the change (because many young people don’t access their email regularly).

Weeks after the event, such notices are still pinned to the door. “Zoology 101 is cancelled today, July 20”, a notice will say, and it will probably remain there until September. I often end up taking down outdated notices myself and throwing them away.

I wonder if the people who leave old notices up everywhere are the same ones who leave their empty coffee mugs at the lectern, their pens and discarded food packets and half-consumed bottles of water on table tops, and who place their chewing gum under the tables?

To my way of thinking, leaving up old notices, real or virtual, is just another form of littering—and we already have enough of that.

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There’s something funny going on with bread

In our “new” suburb, to which we moved a year ago, there are no independent bakeries close by, so we have to buy bread from the supermarket or one of those bakery franchises, which are pretty much the same, actually.

It’s disappointing to see row upon row of spongy white bread on the supermarket shelves: there must be 30 brands. Even their bakery section has mostly plain white bread in various guises.

It’s a far cry from the aromatic, heavy, crunchy-crusted loaves we used to buy at any of several small independent bakeries within walking distance of our house in our old suburb. For convenience, we also used to buy bread in the supermarket there, but again, there was less of your limp white pre-sliced type and more of your grained, dense brown styles.

Lately, I’ve noticed something funny about the bread, whether it be from the supermarket or the bakery chain: it won’t toast.

That’s right. Brands that previously came up hot and golden in our new toaster, with its wily ways and plethora of buttons, now refuse to toast. The slice simply becomes drier and drier, and the crust eventually burns, but the middle never toasts.

We have found this to be so with white bread, sourdough bread, brown bread and muffins of various brands, for a couple of months now.

***Conspiracy theory***: Could the bread all be made at some big central bread depot, then just put in separate packets and called different names? And could the bread formerly known as good for toasting, be being made with different (i.e. cheaper) ingredients that stop it behaving like real bread?

I think the only answer is to buy a bread-making machine and make our own.

Bread

WAIT! There’s no Easter Bunny?

I heard a funny (peculiar, not hah-hah) story this week about a company function to which the families of employees had been invited, and of course there were little kids there. The Easter Bunny made an appearance too.

It was really warm in Melbourne that afternoon – about 30C. After a while, the Easter Bunny, able to stand the heat no more, took off his head. “Whew!” the man inside the suit said, “It was getting hot in there”.

And all the little kids around him began to cry.

They were worried that the Easter Bunny had lost his head.

Or perhaps they were just upset that they’d been sold a pup, so to speak. The awful truth was, the Easter Bunny wasn’t real.

I grew up with the same stories about the Easter Bunny and Father Christmas, though I soon deduced that the EB couldn’t be real. I did, however, believe in the big FC until I was about 10 and some ratbag kid at school told me the truth.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m glad The Easter Bunny’s not real. A rabbit the size of a man would not be my idea of cute. Before long, he’d find a partner rabbit the size of a woman, and they’d have thousands of human-sized rabbit babies and eat all the grass and crops in Australia.

Rabbits are not native animals here, and they are pests in the wild, though apparently, they make adorable pets.

I do wonder, however, why as an entire society, we feel a need to pretend the Easter Bunny and Father Christmas are real, when the rest of the time we’re reassuring kids that the characters in their story books, including the monsters, are not real, and they shouldn’t talk to strangers they don’t know, even if they seem nice.

I guess it’s all part of the commercialised, commodified, mediatised world we live in.

Freshly baked hot cross buns from my favourite Vietnamese-run bakery will be my Good Friday breakfast.

Freshly baked hot cross buns from my favourite Vietnamese-run bakery will be my Good Friday breakfast. The crosses didn’t work out too well, but I’m assured people travel from afar to buy them.

That aside, there are aspects of Easter I like. Mainly, it’s a few days off work (during which I get to catch up with my marking—oh joy!). There are hot cross buns on Friday (ours are from my favourite family-run bakery), shopping on Saturday, a family meal on Sunday and a well-deserved lie-in on Monday.

And not to forget the chocolate Easter eggs. I’ve suddenly, just since a year ago, become a regular chocolate eater after not being much interested in it since childhood.

Back then, I used to hoard all my Easter eggs and eat them a tiny piece at a time, sometimes taking a month to finish them. This would infuriate my brother, who would finish all his on the same day he received them and then appeal to me for some of mine. Mum would tell me I should “share” with my brother and not be selfish. Hmph!

It’s pretty much the same in my house today: I savour a piece or two of chocolate a day, whereas Himself scoffs his then thinks I’ll take pity on him and share mine.

Not me: boys have always been taking my chocolate, and they don’t get it any more!

A book to scare the living daylights out of you

OK, I know monsters don’t exist. There are no vampires, bogey men or Frankenstein’s creatures. These are monsters of fiction, and are not real.
There is no space monster as depicted in the films Alien and Aliens and it will not come crashing through the bathroom window at night to get me.
There is no longer a big bad wolf living under my bed, as there was when I was a child, with enormous teeth all the better to eat me.
Shape-changers cannot slip under the door and lurk in the shadows, waiting to spring.
Ghosts of poor unfortunates who died in a sinking ship in the 19th century are not haunting people and leaving icy footprints on the stairs.
Oh but they are, they are.
At least they are in the American writer Keith Donohue’s masterful horror novel The Boy Who Drew Monsters, and while by day it all seems like a bit of nonsense, by night, every creak and bump in the house announces that there could be a bit of truth in that fiction…
It is, of course, the power of an excellent and accomplished writer to make you believe the unbelievable.
There will be no spoilers here, but I can say that The Boy Who Drew Monsters focuses on two 10-year-old boys, friends whose lives changed when they are both nearly drowned in the sea three years before. Nick becomes a loner but manages to function fairly normally, while Jack Peter is diagnosed with autism and refuses to leave the house, spending almost all his time drawing pictures.
Then strange things start to happen. Jack Peter’s parents start seeing creepy apparitions and hearing noises as if something is trying to get into their house. The horror escalates, and then they discover their son has been drawing monsters…beings that somehow seem to be coming to life. Then they discover that a ship sank in the sea in front of their house in the 19th century, and the bodies of some of the drowned were never found.
There has been some criticism of the end of the novel but—again without any spoilers—I thought the ending was great. Why? Because I can’t stop thinking about it. Donohue makes you question your beliefs about what is real and what is not, the power of the imagination and the power of suggestion. Granted, there are holes in the plot and certain plot points that remain unresolved at the end—but this leaves the reader to make up her or his own mind.
While verdicts on The Good Read website of The Boy Who Drew Monsters  are mixed, acclaimed horror writer Peter Straub wrote a glowing review in The Washington Post. According to Straub, “This novel is beautifully carpentered, and its effects are perfectly timed. The sheer professionalism here, an achievement which should never be undervalued, is felt on one’s nerve ends.” You can read the full review on Donohue’s website here.

I’ve been a fan of Donohue’s writing since his masterful first novel, the magical reality story The Stolen Child (2006), inspired by the Yeats poem of the same name. The novel went on to become a NY Times bestseller.
Donohue lives in Maryland, and by profession is an archivist with a PhD in English—Irish literature, to be precise. He was 47 before his first novel was published and despite large success, he still has a day job as the Director of Communications for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission at the US National Archives.

Actually, horror is not usually my choice in novels. I prefer non-gory crime, historical romances and stories of everyday life, but Donohue’s compelling literary prose and ability to build tension in the narrative hook me every time.

Although I found the book terribly scary, I could not tear myself away from it, save to gingerly look up the stairs or behind the door to make sure there really wasn’t a monster hiding there. Thanks, Dr Donohue: with The Boy Who Drew Monsters, you have scared the living daylights out of me!

Bats, Vampires, and What We Do in the Shadows

Dusk, and the screen is soon to be lowered at Shadow Electric. Then the bats come out, hundreds of them, flying overhead. Unfortunately, it was too dark by then to get an image. Picture: ©Caron Eastgate Dann 2014

Dusk, and the screen is soon to be lowered at Shadow Electric. Then the bats come out, hundreds of them, flying overhead. Unfortunately, it was too dark by then to get an image. Picture: ©Caron Eastgate Dann 2014

As dusk was turning to night around 9pm, the screen was lowered and lit up. At the same moment, hundreds of bats filled the inky sky above the outdoor cinema.
Apparently, this happens every night at Shadow Electric Outdoor Cinema and Bar at the old Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne, Australia. But the bats seemed double spooky on this particular night, because the film we had come to see was the New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows.
Spooky, funny and ironic—the bats AND the movie.
Directed by Taika Waititi (Boy) and Jemaine “Flight of the Conchords” Clement, who also star in it, the film has received rave reviews and has been acclaimed at international festivals.
If you don’t already know, What We Do in the Shadows is about a group of vampires who share an apartment (“flat” in NZ talk) in Wellington. Rather than on plot, the film relies on its quirky hilarity and the juxtaposition of characters from classic European horror removed to far-off suburban NZ.
It’s not often I laugh aloud at a film at all, let alone from start to finish. But barely a minute of this 90-minute film went by when I didn’t LOL. It has a Pythonesque quality in that its comedy comes from a combination of clever lines, strangely lovable characters and utterly ridiculous slapstick.

One of my favourite lines is when the vampires, out for a night on the town, come across a gang of their arch enemies, the werewolves. Riled by the vampires, the werewolves utter some expletives, but are quickly reprimanded by their leader and agree with him not to swear: “We’re werewolves, not swear-wolves”, is their mantra.


I can hardly be said to be an objective observer, however, since the main reason I went to the film is because one of my oldest, dearest friends has a role in it. The New Zealand actor Yvette Parsons plays a witch MC at the masquerade ball towards the end of the film. It was exciting to see her up there on the big screen, and to hear the rest of the audience laughing uproariously, like me, at her comedic performance.
What We Do in the Shadows premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in the US last year, and was named best comedy of the year by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian in November. Read his review here.
The film opens in Japan this week, and the producers are hoping to have it released in the US also. Good luck to them! There’s more on the film on their hilarious Facebook page.

A funny thing happened on the way to the garden…

The first lettuce from our own garden

The first lettuce from our own garden

All my adult life Ive steered clear of gardening. Despite my mother being a keen green-thumb and growing our own produce, such as potatoes, mint and parsley, when I was young, I’ve always thought it wasn’t my ‘thing’.

Then a funny thing happened. A few years ago, I started watching a half-hour Saturday evening TV show called Gardening Australia. I still wasn’t into gardening itself, but I began to appreciate the peace and beauty of home-grown plants, particularly, as I’m a bit of a foodie, the edible kind.

In April this year, we moved out of the city to a suburb that is almost rural, to a street in which people take gardening seriously. And although we’re in a townhouse with only a very small courtyard, we’ve started a garden.

We’ve got lettuces, radishes, sweet corn, tomatoes, garlic, chillis, herbs such as rosemary, thyme, basil, parsley, coriander, chives and more. My husband has even started a small and joyful flower garden in one corner.

Because I’ve been watching Gardening Australia attentively for so long, I’ve found that I’ve picked up quite a bit of gardening knowledge without realising it. Soil types and planting widths and watering tips: no longer are they useless information to me.

On Friday night, we had the first lettuce from our garden the star of a salad for dinner. Nothing ever tasted so good—bursting with flavour, nutty, buttery almost, and crunchy.

Lettuce2I teamed it with simple fare: tomatoes and multi-coloured capsicum (not our own, yet); and seared scallops and prawns with my hot butter-garlic-chilli-lemon pepper dressing on a bed of steamed basmati rice.

Best meal I’ve had in ages!

You don’t see this too often

eggThe other morning, I decided to have a fried egg for breakfast. I heated the pan, cracked the shell of a fresh, free-range organic egg, and…out popped a beautiful double yolk.
I’ve seen this only once or twice before in all the thousands of eggs I’ve eaten, including the truly free-range farm eggs I used to buy in rural Thailand in the early 1990s, they of the bright orange yolks and rich flavour.
It got me thinking about other natural phenomena we love to see: there’s something about them that makes you feel lucky all day.
I’ve seen several shooting stars. They’re usually something you see out of the corner of your eye and realise only after that that’s what it was. The most memorable was in Bangkok in the late 1990s. My then-husband and I used sometimes on a Saturday night to go up to the roof of our apartment building where the pool was and lie on the deck chairs, looking up at the sky.
Unbelievably, given the pollution, you could still see stars. One night, we saw what we thought was a bright shooting star go right across the sky. I’m calling it a shooting star, but this is my name for anything I see in the sky like that: it may well have been some other phenomenon.
I’ve never seen a five-leaf clover, but I have a friend who goes running every day, and she has seen quite a few.
But then, you have to be looking for these things to see them.