Friday 23 November 2012

Time is a strange thing

A couple of weeks ago I lost a dear friend, Adam, to lung cancer. 
His illness and death were quick, and as we were separated by oceans during his last weeks I am struggling to believe it’s real.  Then today another good friend sent me a photo of our gang, together less than a year ago in a country pub on the south coast of NSW.  Looking at the photo of Dave, Linda, Adam, Jenny and I – actors I trained with at drama school and who mean the world to me – I am transported back in time to see Adam on stage performing… Adam young and virile… Adam full of warmth and energy… Adam playing the guitar… Adam doing the salsa with a hip-swivel most white guys don’t possess… Adam on the rocks with his fishing-rod… Adam jumping out of a plane and running across the field toward his friends and family with a smile of achievement and exhilaration on his face… and for a moment he is so vivid and close I am back there… not with the loss but with him. 

Thoughts about time recall a passage I’d like to share from my (as yet unpublished) manuscript Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues 



Time is a strange thing; memories too.  Only weeks ago I was kissed in the Milano moonlight by a rugged Swede.  A little over twenty years ago I walked the streets of Florence.  As I return to Firenze, as the Italians more correctly call it, both scenes are now vivid; a million things forgotten in between.

How can it be that our mental library rewinds so accurately at times, opening the image file without hesitation, even if we’d rather it didn’t?  Yet on other occasions we can’t find where we stored details of something we thought we’d never forget?  Random I suppose.

Today excitement seems to have shaken the memory loose, like a rapid reboot after a file lay previously frozen.  Perhaps the file is corrupted, only partly saved, but what has been salvaged is now there in front of me, demanding attention.

Of Firenze twenty years ago I don’t recall who I met… but crystal clear is the excitement of actually being there, of walking across Ponte Vecchio, of taking a bus to an out-of-town hostel and, most startling, the picture of myself as a spirited, young woman.  How can so much time have passed, yet I feel so little changed?  How can I be hardly more grown up yet so much older?  That is time’s mystery and magic. 

In this moment I move toward Firenze with the same hope and excitement of bygone years.  It’s taken me only forty minutes to arrive by car from my house in the olive grove, with air-conditioning and CD blaring Puccini.  My clothes are cleaner and there’s no back-pack, but I feel much like the same girl. 

I ditch the car at Porta Romana, to avoid what I’ve been warned are extreme fines for driving into the no-traffic zone, and walk along the old city wall to Piazza T. Tasso.  After turning right up Via del Campuccio, in a few hundred meters I get the feeling I should turn left.  The first voices I hear are American and they confirm my suspicions that where I want to go is off to the right of Via dei Serragli upon which I’m now strolling.  These back streets are quiet not only because locals are away on holidays but because I’ve arrived, intentionally, during siesta.  My inner tempo increases with anticipation and then suddenly I’m there – at the River Arno. 

Moving quickly towards Ponte Santa Trinita I lean over the side and look up stream to the one and only Ponte Vecchio.  The famous bridge -  designed in 1345 by either Giotto’s pupil, Taddeo Gaddi, or, as more recently believed, by Neri di Fioravante -  is exactly as I recall.  Yet until that second I could not have properly described it.  It’s as if a fog in my brain is slowly lifting, recognition fighting the cobwebs of clutter to rejoin the dots of experience past.  I can do nothing but stare.  Caught in a time-warp even taking a photo seems glib.  I then surprise myself by being consumed by two competing sensations: one a sense of privilege that I’ve returned, when so many have not had the pleasure; the other, a little sour grapes that it’s taken me so long.  I laugh at my greed.  And also my hording instincts, for after all this time I still posses a musty old Firenze map with highlights circled; so sure was I then, that I’d be back much sooner. 

Eventually I do take photos of course.  Then I approach Ponte Vecchio from the northern side.  Pretty jewelry displays fill every shop window.  Was it so twenty years ago?  I don’t remember.  I soon learn that indeed it was: for the butchers, tanners and blacksmiths who operated from the bridge originally, were thrown out by Duke Ferdinando I in 1593 for creating too much noise and stench.  Back and forward along Ponte Vecchio I wander, luxuriating in the fact that there’s no hurry.  Nor does it matter that it’s Monday and museums are shut, as I plan to visit Firenze over and over again.  I feel rich with opportunity, and my Tuscan hat provokes conversation. 

Next I wander along the Archibusieri, the corridor adjacent to the river, until I find myself looking straight under the arches of the infamous Uffizi Gallery.  I smirk to see I had scribbled the names of favourite paintings on the back of my precious map.  And I wonder if my experience of them now will be as satisfying?  I walk in circles around Piazza della Signoria still reveling in the lack of need to rush.  A talented guitarist adds to the atmosphere, playing classical augmentations of well-known pop songs.  Friends laugh at my fondness for John Denver - cemented after going to a live concert not long after my father died and finding him of immense comfort.  What would they think of hearing Annie’s Song in the middle of Firenze?  I can see Brunelleschi’s Dome poking up over buildings in the distance but decide to save the duomo’s delights for later.  Instead I walk toward Basilica di Santa Croce, stopping on the opposite side of the piazza to stare at the white stone fa├žade glistening in the strong afternoon light.  Churches of this size really do need a large space in front of them, for one of the things that makes the Duomo in Milano and the Vatican in Rome so special is the life going on around them.  At any rate you can’t absorb the grandeur with one or two glances, so I plonk myself down in the shade happy to eat an apple and watch tour-groups bustle…

After hours of indulgent wandering in the vicinity of Piazza della Repubblica and Piazza San Marco, I finally make my way back across Ponte Vecchio toward my car.  On the south side of the river I drive around to Piazzale Michelangelo.  Sinking into splendid views over the city and river, Brunelleschi’s Dome sparkling in early evening sun, I am soon refreshed by the gradually-cooler air and the music provided by buskers, one strumming a Ukranian dulcimer. 

After driving back to my new home in the Tuscan olive grove, I then top off an invigorating day by preparing a salad with tomatoes, basil and peppers picked freshly from the garden near my cottage.  Combined with pane, olio e parmigiano reggiano this is about as good as it gets, and I walk up the hill to the pool with a bottle of Chianti under my arm and the scent of freshly-cut basilico in my nostrils.  The key to this country living, I’m fast realizing, is going to be to mix it up - alternating between bustling town and social experiences, with quiet time for reading, writing and swimming. 

A new wave of contentment washes over me. 
(Copyright: Julie Mullins)



Monday 19 November 2012

The best kind of secret

A secret is sweeping the UK.  And if you haven’t got in on it you are missing out.

This secret is the very best kind: intriguing, absorbing, clever, creative, bewitching, beguiling, rewarding, turbo-charged fun shared by only the right kind of people.

And who are these ‘right kind of people’?  They are people like you and me: people who, given the right circumstances, are open and friendly, warm and a little whacky.  They are people who are prepared to get into the spirit of something new, take a risk, wear a costume, muck in, have a laugh, adopt a character, tease a character, improvise, adapt, mingle with strangers, make a new friend, arrive in an unknown place for an unknown experience and do their best to get their money’s worth of entertainment.  They are people who know how to have a good time!

This secret club of smiling, satisfied Londoners is growing… because the Secret Cinema is in town!

One of my Greek sailing buddies, Alex, sent out an unexpected email recently saying “I have ten tickets, first people to confirm can join me for Secret Cinema”.  Toni, my lovely hairdresser, had put me ‘in the know’ about the Secret Cinema phenomena so I replied immediately.  Excitement built as I waited for party day.  When I went to the ‘secret website’ I got more intrigued; for it tells you as much as it holds back. The experience from planning to marketing to arriving and beginning the Secret Cinema journey is filled with mystery and provocative suspense.  The actress in me got hooked on the theatrics.  The writer in me tried to guess which film it might be.  The flirt in me loved the game.  And the arts/events producer is determined to find out who is in charge so I can work for them.

When the day finally arrived I met Alex and Shelene in town for a cocktail.  We then took a tube to the East End to follow instructions we were given, again in secret, re where to report.  We were dressed as instructed.  We were in the mood (as people tend to be if they’ve bothered to prepare for a themed party).  We walked tentatively through a dark park before arriving at the entrance to Secret Cinema's secret location; which changes depending on the design of the event which is governed by the nature of the secret film.  Immediately we were surrounded by atmosphere.  Instantly we were in a scene from the movie.  Inevitably I played along and found myself bantering with hired actors, other customers, Alex’s friends like Jorge, Jonathan and Martin, basically anyone who was ready to ‘pull down their wall’ and go with the energy and intention of the evening. 

It would be hours before we sat down to watch the secret film, by which time we had worked out what it was likely to be.  But it wasn’t the film I’d expected upon arrival and the choice was even better in my opinion – a brilliant film, a classic, with an endless number of themes and settings to play into an event designer’s hands.  I missed nothing.  I admired every piece of period set-dressing and operational detail.  I grinned at the clever use of a vast space and the effortless way crowds flowed in and out of different sections avoiding undue congestion.  I was escorted or wandered from activity to activity.  I drank.  I ate a little.  I talked or interacted with countless people I’d never seen before and probably will never see again.  I laughed.  I play-acted.  I mimicked the actor’s accents, who of course never admitted they were acting.  I got into trouble (though I can’t tell you with whom as that would give away the plot).  I made friends.  I lost friends (as in physically separated).  And because of that I made one particular new friend, a nice young man called Haydn, who stayed with me for the whole evening, ready to enjoy the diversity of activities and laugh heartily as I threw myself into scenes as if I was already on the pay-roll.

I can’t tell you anything about the actual activities, the setting or the film – that would be like telling someone the ending of Mouse Trap – but I can say that visitors are free to interact as little or as much with the pre-show event as feels comfortable for them.  I can also say the Secret Cinema experience was extremely well thought out, designed, directed and executed… and after several hours of fun you then got to sit down and watch the film with popcorn and beer.  Could it get any better? 

Well actually, yes, in my case it did.  Because the handsome man who’d been such good company, sat with me in the rear of the cinema and held my hand.  Then, feeling happy and carefree, we kissed.  In fact it was lucky we both knew the film well, as after a gentle start we decided we liked it and kept kissing.  It was also lucky the seat immediately behind was vacant so our heads coming together didn’t obstruct anyone’s view.  When temperatures rose we thought about going outside for a while to ‘make out’ like teenagers.  But it was so delightfully uncomplicated to enjoy simultaneous snuggling, kissing and watching, that we stayed in the make-shift cinema and enjoyed the movie highlights with all the other warm, happy people. 

At the end of this evening of unadulterated fun, all we could do was laugh and smile and repeat over and over again “what a great night”!  Indeed everyone on the bus was smiling and saying “awesome”… “can’t imagine a better evening”…  

Then the nice young man got me safely home. We exchanged numbers with a goodnight kiss.  And whether I see him again, or not, he was the perfect Secret Cinema buddy – his soft lips a bonus in a swathe of sweet secrets and delights.

Regular blog readers know I love opera, theatre, galleries and many cultural pursuits.  But if you want to let your hair down… be a little whacky and wild, and come out with a smile on your face that you won’t be able to shift for days… then get yourself into the secret club of smug people ‘in the know’.

Most of all, may the secret charms of Secret Cinema long endure...





Monday 12 November 2012

That is the Question

Some questions make their point rhetorically.  Some require a response.  Others are better left unanswered. 

But can we always tell which is which?   Could Hamlet?

Some questions require an honest answer; a quick or exact reply.  Some need reflection and consideration.  Others lead to avoidance because of a perceived threat. 
And the terrain can be difficult before the added complication of men and women feeling differently about the parameters.   

So let’s start with something easy:  “does my bum look big in this?”  You’d imagine anyone could avoid getting that wrong… but women still complain men with limited emotional intelligence step right into it.

Equally “how do I look?” is a question hoping for encouraging validation – especially if there’s no time left to change clothes -  so the required response is hardly rocket science; albeit superior if you step up with a compliment before the question’s asked.

Some questions arise out of social politeness.  I described a date to some male friends recently and was told “any guy who’s on a date will tell a girl he likes her cooking, her wine, her whatever… whether or not he does”.   “Really?” I asked.  “Yes of course” the men replied in unison.  “If there’s any chance he’ll score it’s in his interest to say the right things.”   Presented as incontrovertible fact, they inferred even the town idiot would know this to be the case; and, by implication, women who didn’t know it to be true were silly. 

Hmm, puts a different spin on early courting flattery, doesn’t it?

What about the question “are you going to be home late?”   Men particularly hate that question.  They don’t want to feel watched or time-controlled.  Fair enough.  I feel the same.  So the clever response is to commit only to a ball-park.  If couples give each other the same freedom in most cases it shouldn’t be an issue.  Or there’s always the option of “don’t wait up”… or “I’ll text you if I’m going to be later than….”… but if you put that out there you better stick to it. 

And that’s the thing about questions: no-one wants to be lied to or misled.  So, except in the case of a parent/child, adult/teenager relationship, if you can’t commit to a real answer then say that: “I’m sorry, but I just can’t answer you right now”… “give me some time please”…  or “when I do know I will tell you”.  Even a reply like “you know that isn’t a fair question”… is better than a lie, a grunt or an intentional obfuscation.

We can use our wits to side-step a question which is too early to be answered: such as “sorry, it’s too late for me to drink coffee…”  Or “I have an early meeting”.   But with the right encouragement the recipient learns she/he has to produce a better performance before gaining your interest. 

That brings us to the point that the fair or appropriate answer to a question is very much related to the familiarity between the parties and the context. 

When you say to your classroom “are you listening?” and they murmur unconvincingly “yes, Miss”, you usually take it as a cue to repeat yourself.  With Little Johnny you fully expect to say “are you listening?” as well as “look at me” many times, because the information will never sink in if he has his eyes glued to the Wiggles.  Yet when you are trying to share sincere feelings with your lover the question “are you listening?”  can also mean “because if you don’t put down that bloody TV remote I will break it over your head!”. 

No wonder couple’s counsellors tell people to repeat back to each other what the other person has just said – because what we say and what is heard are frequently completely different things.  Indeed it’s a technique we always use in business, by writing up the Minutes and Actions generated from a meeting.  So it makes sense to apply to important aspects of our personal lives if both parties desire a mutually comfortable outcome.

Personally, I have the biggest problem with people who are so afraid of their own shadow, or so suspicious of people who can articulate their thoughts and feelings, that they will die in a ditch before they deign to answer a direct question.  If you are a straight-shooter, then people who go to great lengths to avoid the honest unpacking of a situation will not only drive you crazy but ultimately lose your respect.  For in a context where challenge or conflict exists, a refusal to talk, or passive aggressive avoidance upon avoidance, perhaps accompanied by pathetically repeated statements like "I don’t know… I don’t know…  (insert weak shrug)”… is nothing more than an unfair and dishonest power play; made all the more annoying because to deflect weakness or inadequacy they suggest the questioner is at fault for daring to require an answer.  

In that situation I’ve learnt it is important to detach from the need for a response (to, in effect, reclaim your power by letting go of the silent tug ‘o war) and the sooner the better - because if resistance to communication is fierce you won’t get a reasonable or sensible reply anyway.  For the real issue is not ‘the silent treatment’, but lack of respect or insufficient capacity.

By contrast, I thoroughly enjoy social flirtation, even with strangers: “don’t you look lovely today?”… “oh, do I?” they reply, surprised but totally chuffed.  It costs little and makes someone’s day.  I had a chat to an Indian woman in a dry-cleaners last week, asking about her family and her husband, who turned out to have passed away.  When I went back to get my trousers the tag attached said “no charge”.  I was touched, as the questions must have proved comforting. 

Some question-answer-tap-dancing is particularly fun: “would you like to come back to my place?”…  “well actually, I might have missed the last train… what do you think?”   On the dating circuit this banter can keep you at Waterloo Station for ages, by which time you have missed the last train.  And, whatever else evolves, it gives a measure of the guy’s creativity and confidence… not to mention a likely good-night kiss and ongoing suspense.

Just now I did a similar dance with a recruitment agent who I was keen to meet, where (thankfully) at exactly the right moment I slipped in “would it add any value for us to meet face-to-face?”  Bulls-eye.  I now have that appointment in my diary.

I’ve also often enjoyed the ‘question turned around’ - especially Better Midler’s infamous line in Beaches: “ok, enough about me, what do you think of me?”   My old friend Tim says it’s the line from a movie which most reminds him of me.  Hmm.  I hope he means because the character was an actress?  J  But I didn’t ask, as I didn’t want the answer! 

And that’s the thing: don’t ask if you don’t want to know.  Because it is true that if you ask a question (particularly a hairy one) you have to be prepared for an answer you may not like; or at least be willing, in the majority of circumstances, to take the answer on face value, to process and eventually deal with it.  

That said though, the teller of bad news should be prepared to deal with the fact that the listener may be shocked or hurt by the answer… so, if a relationship is respectful or sincere, the divulging of difficult information makes it incumbent upon him/her to share in and deal with the fallout.  Adults don’t dump and run.  It’s immature.  Inhumane.  So I have no tolerance for comments like “if you’re going to over-react when I tell you the truth, I’ll have to lie to you”.  For that is one of the biggest cop-outs of all time... the finely tuned justification of a coward.

I’ll concede a related point, however, which one of my sailing buddies made recently.  He was talking about a friend who went home to confess to his wife about a long-term, extra-marital affair.  The scene was ugly, as you can imagine, excruciating… and, having confessed, the guy could not handle the ensuing consequences.  Putting aside for the moment the question of whether his ‘confession’ was more selfish than constructive… the point my friend made was that her reaction to the devastating news was supposedly “so extreme” that the guy ended up running away from the pressure.  Now that is HIS problem and HIS weakness.  But the sad reality, is that she didn’t then get to heal or experience any deeply felt regret; if it was genuine.  Nor did she get the reconciliation she longed for… because he used the challenging circumstances as an excuse to shut down and avoid. 

Naturally that doesn’t make me like or admire him.  And his shutting down, and ‘playing down’ of the seriousness of the hurt, will certainly make it harder for his wife to forgive him.  Nevertheless we can extract from the tragedy a small but useful point: our reactions will seem in proportion to people who share our feelings or who understand them.  They are likely to seem out of proportion, sometimes unreasonable, to people who don’t. 

That doesn’t make it fair.  The other person may be seriously inadequate when it comes to emotional range or putting themselves in someone else’s shoes… but if they don’t understand it is probably better to acknowledge that and work from there. 

For experts commonly tell us communication will always be enhanced if, in the midst of cut and thrust, we keep asking (or assessing) “do you understand”... or “what do you understand me to be saying?”   Again we can’t force someone to engage, to answer, to take responsibility… but if  both parties are willing to play ball it can be constructive.  The very act of thinking this way too, may help the ‘wounded party’ to moderate their reaction sufficiently to keep him/her in the arena… to at least keep the dialogue going… because, no matter how choppy the water, two people can’t row a boat unless they move the oars in harmony.   And if one collapses and drops the oars, however pathetically, then frankly the partnership is screwed.

Questions used like weapons is another possibility - an extreme example being the bullying tactics of Parliamentary Question Time. 

Nor do I much like the ‘PC gone mad’ approach adopted increasingly in the UK: when the head of a major sporting club is so pressured by the media to assert the moral high ground that when faced with questions about a drunken football fan he completely forgets sensible childhood lessons like “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”. 

But like the quintessential question “to be or not to be”… I am interested to pay more attention to the nuances around questions posed and questions left unanswered. 

And what I am looking for, I suspect, will be found like a good Harold Pinter play… in the silences. 




Monday 5 November 2012

Lightness of Being

I feel more light-hearted today. 

Unexpectedly, someone has sincerely apologized for treating me in a way which wasn’t at all nice.  It was more business than personal, but it was distressing nevertheless, and the promise of peace between us has lightened my load.  Reconciliation is a beautiful thing.

It reminds me of a wee episode in my yet to be published manuscript Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues.  And while retaining full copyright, I’d like to share an abridged section here…


I’m lying by the pool; this time with lots of sunscreen. 
After a day walking in Firenze I’m relaxed and comfortable to do little.  My recliner is set back from the water’s edge, on a slope to maximize the stunning Tuscan view, and while sinking into the reality of the novel I am reading, I’m surrounded by the sound of water splashing and children playing… 

After a while my eyes drift back to the pool, and in a moment I am struck by the freedom and wildness of being a child. 

A little French boy, no more than two years old, is running along the pool’s edge naked.  I’ve got my eye on him because I’m concerned he may tumble in.  Hot on his heels is another small boy, perhaps a year older, dressed ready to swim with floaties gripping his upper arms.  The smaller boy is carrying a silver soup ladle, apparently delighted with himself for having taken it from his brother.   When he arrives at the corner gate - the one leading into the olive grove and down to my cottage - he looks at the bigger boy and provocatively drops the ladle through the fence to the dirt below.  The older boy stops, looks at the ‘toy’ out of reach, and then leaning right over the little one, opens his mouth wide into a long, loud and indignant scream.  He doesn’t attempt to retrieve the ladle, or make any kind of assault on the younger boy.  He simply wants his displeasure known. 

I smile to see his mouth as wide as Luna Park, the little one just watching, not reacting, as if he’s heard it all before.  Eventually the adults and other children get sick of the noise and come to the rescue - the toddlers simply staring into the dirt like it is territory they dare not venture.  Well, until the moment their mother opens and closes the gate to retrieve the ladle, after which they only want to go down there and have to be repeatedly restrained. 

Ah, ‘the other’ you see… wanting what you can’t have starts early.  

The silly little incident amuses me, for it captures something about the delightfully unfettered nature of childhood.  Imagine if we did that in the office when a work colleague did something to cheese us off?  Hmm, interesting food for thought... 

The best part of the story is that the children are now going back to play after the clash, with no hard feelings and barely recollection.  Little children travel light.  That’s why they do play. 

And I realize my pleasure is in watching that wonderful lightness of being.