The Last Barbecue

Kevin had thought about the ideal location for weeks before settling on this spot. It wasn’t far from his favourite camping spot, where he and the boys would set up for long weekends of fishing and rabbit hunting. Now he was here and it was really happening, all those memories were making him dry in the mouth. He was getting choked up. He wasn’t going to cry, though. Kevin was a man with a job to do. One last job.

He pulled out fifty cents from his pocket, pressed the starter button, and laid his barbecuing tools out on the bench next to the hot plate. While he waited for it to heat up, he opened the esky. He grabbed a beer out from beside the carcass, skinned and shining under the cling wrap. He paused and looked at it, then he ran a finger down the length of its spine. The flesh squished at his touch, just like any other meat.

Suddenly angered, he slammed the lid of the esky and went back to drinking his beer and prepping for the cook up. It might not be the right thing to do, but he was here now. He was locked in.

Skinning it had taken longer than he’d expected. There were so many little toes to get around. He knew he could have just cut them off, but if he was going to go out this way, he was committed to enjoying every morsel of flesh he could suck off those bones.

When he was satisfied that the tiny corpse was seared to his liking, he picked it up with the barbecue tongs and threw it onto his dinner plate. It nearly filled the whole thing. Perfect.

For almost a year now, he hadn’t been able eat a single mouthful of sausage, a sliver of steak, even a taste of chicken breast without breaking into hives, at best. At worst, he would go into full blown anaphylactic shock. The doctors had puzzled over it for months; meat wasn’t something you just became allergic to overnight, if at all. Kevin was a medical curiosity, poked and prodded by dickheads with stethoscopes who couldn’t tell him when he’d be able to sit down to a lamb kebab again. Finally, after analysing test after test and realising that there had been a spike in related cases on Sydney’s North Shore, they asked Kevin if he’d ever been bitten by a tick.

“Yeah,” Kevin had replied. “A couple of times. But I flicked it off and it was all good.” He’d laughed. “Don’t tell me that little bastard’s the reason for all this!”

But it was. Kevin had been struck down by mammalian meat allergy, and he would never be able to eat the flesh of another creature again.

All those beautiful Sunday roasts, Saturday night barbecues and late night Maccas runs had been ripped from his grasp, all because one little bloodsucker bit one little marsupial that couldn’t digest animal products, and then bit him, passing on one tiny protein from that furry bastard into his circulatory system, where it multiplied and took over his body, until he was allergic to that one thing integral to every red blooded bloke’s identity (after beer): meat.

Apparently there’d been a massive increase in the number of bandicoots in the area around Kevin’s place, and with it had come an explosion in the local tick population. Their favourite food? Bandicoot blood, although Kevin was apparently a close second.

After six months of nothing but rabbit food, Kevin had almost lost it. He decided he needed to eat flesh again, even if it killed him, which it probably would. He desperately longed to have something that could bleed between his teeth, something you could order on a range from blue to well done. He wanted to devour a victim of factory farming, from paddock to pan to plate.

The worst bit was watching his wife Sharon chow down on anything she wanted. You could do that when you were pregnant. While she was downing a steak and chips, Kev was stuck sucking on a kale smoothie or some other hippy bullshit. Now the baby was here, the smell of breastmilk was constantly wafting through the house, reminding Kevin of veal and lamb and all the other baby animals that were even more delicious than their parents. It was driving him mad.

He knew he had to get his revenge, even if it killed him.

Kevin took one long, final look at his last meal. He could smell the meat juices hanging in the air, making his stomach queasy while making his mouth water. He pulled out the pictures of his mum, Sharon and baby Eddie one last time, kissed each in turn, then put it down on top of the esky.

He tore into his kill. It was such a relief to taste non-plant based proteins again. Plus, it was fucking delicious.

Once he was done with his grisly feast, Kevin lay down and waited for his immune system to betray him. He thought about what the cops would think when they found his body, probably frothing at the mouth, tiny bones strewn around him, an enamel plate smeared with tomato sauce by his side. He wondered if they’d be disgusted by his crime, or if they would find his tastes understandable once they understood his circumstances. Maybe they had always wanted to do it themselves, but never had the guts to do it. Maybe they’d find it ironic that Kevin didn’t have the guts for it either.

But at least they’d know he had gone down fighting. He hadn’t gone quiet into that good night. He’d seen the cause of his own problem and taken vengeance in his own proud way.

At least they’d know he’d taken one of the bastards down with him.

Fucking bandicoots.

Downstream

The rains had come
Upstream
The twins expected thunder
But the river always
Refuses expectations
Instead
The air was still
Save the warbling of the magpies.
Cicadas, light and scorching heat,
Like the rains would never come.

Then we saw it
Slinking slowly
Like the story of the snake
The First of Us have been telling
For thousands of years.

The kids chased its head down the creek bank
As it slithered down the waterway
And I beamed in wonder
At this long withheld blessing.

I saw the twinkle of dew in Mum’s eye.

I took her hand,
And tried to forget all the days
The water had been too late for.

I whispered to her,
Maybe he had to go
Because he knew they wouldn’t listen
Unless he asked in person.

Her grip became a vice
But there was no sound
Despite the streams staining her cheeks.

So that’s how we stayed,
Hand clasped in hand,
As the kids pointed and laughed and raced
The rainbow serpent around the riverbend,
Downstream.

 

*****

This poem won first place in the Open Own Composition section at the 2019 Dubbo Eisteddfod. You can find the adjudicator’s notes on my Instagram.

Resolutions Rejected: A Toast to Intentional Failure

Here is number three in the series about my 2018 resolutions/goals/things. Yes, I’m just as shocked as you are. You can find the full list of posts in this series here.

3. Go a year without buying alcohol for myself.

This seemed like a fantastic idea. I already had almost no alcohol in the house: just one bottle of wine, and some terrible gin, which I poured down the sink after the latest attempt to drink it. I had recently come around to soda water, which is something I can sip on slowly, unlike every other soft drink in existence, which I tend to gulp down with the kind of gusto that leaves me wondering if there was even in a drink in the glass to start with, I could have sworn it was there a minute ago. And due to my social life pretty much coming to a halt of late due to my epilepsy flare ups, I wasn’t drinking that much to begin with! How hard could it be?

The best thing about this idea was that it allowed for wiggle room. I could drink alcohol given to me, but I couldn’t go out and buy myself a bottle of wine any time just because I felt like it. I couldn’t ask for a drink, but if someone offered, I was allowed to accept if I wanted.

The reasoning behind the idea was simple. I would save money. I would get better at socialising without a chemical crutch. The chances of suffering a hangover would be lessened, and my sleep patterns would probably thank me for it, as it’s hard to stay out until 4am when your evening high is fueled only by carbonated water. The fact that there would be less calories in my life was just an added bonus.

But then I heard about the woes that one of my favourite watering holes in the whole world, The Phoenix, was facing. I’ve spoken about how much I love that little hole in the wall before, and though I’ve not been frequenting it as much of late, it still holds an incredibly massive part of my heart within its dark walls.

Immediately, I was struck with an ultimatum of sorts. Do I stick to my guns and my soda water on a Saturday night, or do I chuck in a few extra bucks via a few cheeky pints? The Phoenix needs its patrons to step up right now, and for me, that would likely mean breaking my little resolution.

I couldn’t make a choice. I wanted to have a bit of both.

So I made a compromise. A few times a week, after work, I will go in to The Phoenix and buy one drink of whatever I like. Whatever it is, I will nurse it while I read a book for a little while, and then I will go home. Any time outside that period, I will not be purchasing alcohol for myself.

I read somewhere once that allowing yourself to cheat a little bit on massive resolutions can help you keep them overall, so maybe this is for the best.

So should you find yourself in Civic on a weekday afternoon, pop into the friendly little Irish bar on East Row, pull up a pew and join me for a bevvie and a book. It’ll be nice to have the company.

EDIT 26/1/18: You can donate to the Phoenix’s GoFund Me Page here. They’re a little over $30,000 short of their goal, but more importantly, over $40,000 has already been raised to help keep their doors open.

Making My Brain My Bitch

This is the second in a series about my goals for 2018. The fact that I’ve gotten to a second entry is likely as surprising to you as it is to me. You can find the full list of posts I’ve written on this theme here.

2. Get my epilepsy in check.

You don’t have to have read much of this blog to know that my brain is a bloody mess. Epilepsy, depression, just being generally scattered and forgetful: it’s not a particularly ordered thing to live in.

Since I started tracking my seizure patterns again in August 2017, I have had 15 seizures, including two this morning. That doesn’t count the number of times I have lost feeling or the ability to move my limbs or extremities for no apparent reason.

Something needed/needs to change.

This year, I’m going to try to get better sleep. I’m going to be as compliant as humanly possible with my medication through the use of Webster packs. I am taking notes on every seizure, and fighting for extra tests just in case. I’ve been able to negotiate a part-time work arrangement so that I have time to rest mid-week and I can reduce my stress levels.

The effect of these steps and sacrifices remain to be seen. I have a neurologist appointment and ambulatory EEG in February which will hopefully offer some more answers.

Until then, I’m just here at home counting milestones – seven days, thirty days, three months – hoping that it will all pay off sooner rather than later, and I can go back to living a life that I feel comfortable in.

Ten Thousand Little Words

This is the first in what I hope is a series of posts about my goals for 2018. Knowing my tendency to start these things and never follow through, I am incredibly skeptical that any of them will come to fruition (including the completion of this series), so I expect you to come into this entry with the same frame of mind.

1. Write 10,000 words a month.

I have tried NaNoWriMo twice now, and both times have been an absolute failure. I wasn’t even trying to do it properly – both times I had an idea that I had already started working on. The second time, I wasn’t even reaching for the full 50,000 words. Instead, I set myself what I thought was a more suitable goal of 20,000 words on top of what I’d already written (from memory, about 3,000 words). A month on, and I’ve reached 10,000 words of varying degrees of quality on what I believe may be no more than a novella. At this stage, I don’t really care. I just want the damn thing finished.

My last job was a “creative” one, writing advertising for radio. I’d spent my entire life working towards it, but after ten years of work experience, study and working in the industry, I was sick of the job. I was writing for the local street press, and it was scratching my itch to write, but it didn’t feel particularly creative. I had a short story sitting in my To Do pile, and my major project to finish, but nothing was coming to me anymore. I was thinking up ideas in the shower, or dreaming amazing things that set my mind alight with possibilities, but I wasn’t putting any of it on the page. It just stayed in my head, and I did nothing with it.

When I had The Seizure That Turned My Life Upside Down in March 2016, I lost the will (and the ability) to work on anything. I tried to keep my column up for BMA, but it wasn’t giving me the same pleasure it used to. It had become a chore. I thought about blogging again, and did a few times to try and get my anguish out, but it felt hollow and narcissistic. I needed a new project, a new drive, and a new job that wasn’t going to wring all my creativity into 30 second chunks for a wage that was almost half the average wage for the city I lived in.

I achieved the third thing on that list last August. I’m now working for significantly more money, in a (very) challenging job, surrounded by the kind of work culture I could never have dreamed of in the radio industry. The people I work with are incredible, the support I’ve had despite my significant health challenges over the last few months have been beyond my wildest dreams, and I’m learning new things all the time. I’m so incredibly lucky to have stumbled into this organisation. (For a number of reasons, I won’t be sharing the name of my employer here.)

But what about the other two? That need for a project and for that drive to move me forward in terms of my writing?

That’s why I’ve set this goal. Broken down, it works out to be a little under 350 words a day. It doesn’t matter why I’ve written them, what they’re about, or whether I intend to publish them. They just have to exist on the page.

Just 350 little words. Or 2,500 a week. However it happens, a total goal of 10,000 a month.

Even if I only achieve it in January, I’ll be happy with that. Because hell, it’s a start.

And I’ve got 616 words to prove it.

At Risk of Being Wrong, Here’s To 2017


I feel like being optimistic about 2017 is foolish, but here I am, doing just that. Looking through my journal the other day, I found exactly the same optimism in my first entry for 2016, and look where that got us.

While 2016 was shitty for a lot of people because of wonderful people who died (I’m still not ready to believe Carrie Fisher is gone), or because of certain election results (there’s the obvious US and UK cock-ups, but the Australian election and its repercussions for Centrelink and Medicare scare me more), but the biggest issue for me was my health.

For most of 2016, I was ill. It wasn’t a physical malady, so even I’m a little reluctant to use the term, but there really is no other description that fits the bill.

In March, my epilepsy took me from a place of optimism and drive, to somewhere dark I hadn’t been since 2012. The ensuing depression was some of the worst I’ve ever dealt with, but this time I was willing to be open with those around me about what it was doing to me and the kind of help I was in desperate need of. I can happily say that has started to pay off over the last few months, and I’m getting the medical help I need to move towards the more even keel that will make the shift into the real world and employment a reality.

Last time it took me 10 months to recover; so far I’m clocking in at 9, but I’m in a better position now than I was then. I’ve not been working full time, but I’ve got a couple of freelance clients, and doing those occasional projects has really boosted my confidence in my own writing and in the idea that I might be able to do this as a side project.

Last time, serendipity delivered me back into a radio gig, but now that I’ve decided I need time away from that industry, where I have spent almost my entire career, that won’t be so easy. I’m working with my neurologist and GP to make sure I’m not going at it too hard, and working with Employment Services Group in Braddon to assess what my skills and strengths are so that I can find a job where I will be a good fit. I’m still in the process of completely re-writing my CV for temp work, and I’m still trying to work out what the hell I’m going to apply for, but the cogs are finally turning and I feel like I’ll get to where I’m going in the next month or two. (With the job market in its current condition, that might be a little over-optimistic, but I think I can do it.)

diary 2017In previous posts, I’ve talked about the symbolic importance the New Year holds for me. I like beginnings, but in the past I’ve often struggled to see them through in my personal life. Resolutions fall over in 24 hours, and my optimism barely lasts the week. So why is this time so different to previous years?

This year, I’m taking the advice of Joe Biden, and I’ve made a plan. It could fall through, but I’ve been slowly integrating it into my life over the last month or so, and it seems to be gradually working. I’m getting things done and creating healthy habits, and I’ve not forgotten my medication in at least three weeks! I’ll write a post about it next week (oh yes, I intend to write here a lot more in 2017).

And resolutions? Sure, I’ve made a few, but I’m going to keep them to myself for now. Hopefully I’ll spend 2017 writing about how I’m achieving them rather than reflecting on how I haven’t come close to achieving them…

Getting me through 2016 was a team effort, so there are many thanks that need to be said. Mum and Dad have been the best parents a girl could ask for, looking after me in their home, keeping a roof over my head in Canberra and supporting me as I’ve taken my first shaky steps back into the real world. My sister Justine has given me a lot of hugs when I need them, and I can’t overstate how wonderful that is. Thanks to my best mate Miranda for always being there for a chat and giving me kindness and well-deserved tough love in relevant measure. My housemate Karina, for being incredibly tolerant of my untidy and lazy ways being amplified by my less than ideal condition, and my constant travelling back and forth over the last few months. BMA’s editor Andrew Nardi has been an absolute saint in terms of my struggles to reach deadlines, and so many of my Canberra-based friends – Nigel, Beth, Ali, Cam, Rhonda, David, Josh, Justyna, Bondy, Chris, Nick, Emma, Gerry, Kath and so many more – have been much loved and appreciated connections back to the life I love to live. My former work colleagues have been incredibly kind during my illness, with special mention to Kirstan, who has been the best co-copywriter I’ve had the pleasure of working with, and a bloody good mate who has inspired me with the goals she keeps on kicking. Dr Kaitlyn Parratt at the RPA epilepsy clinic and Dr Chowdury Beg, my GP at Dubbo Medical and Allied Health Group, have both have been absolutely critical in my long term treatment and recovery. To my extended family: I count my blessings every day that I was born into our mad mob. Finally, a massive expression of love goes out to my Internet Party buddies who have been on the front line of most of my expressions of anguish this year: Alex N, Alex B, Fin, Britt, Tim, Lizzy, Beth and Lauretta.

I know 2017 is going to involve a lot of hard work, personally and politically right around the world, but for the first time in a long time, I not only think I’m ready to do it…

…I’m absolutely going to.

Happy New Year.

Dear Mr Springsteen

born-to-run-front-cover-only12 May 2016

Dear Mr Springsteen,

I have epilepsy, and I have spent the last month and a half recovering from a bout of seizures I suffered in the middle of March. I used to work in radio, had a reasonably happy life in a city I love, living independently and working towards becoming a freelance writer. I’d recently joined my first band (!) and was starting to engage with some of the challenges I’d been dreaming about since I was a kid.

Now I’m living at my parents’ house, in a regional area five hours from where I want to be, with a stutter that has killed any chance of continuing work in radio and significantly effected my employability across the board. Even the most basic of tasks can be incredibly tiring due to my motor skills going AWOL, and holding a conversation is a struggle most days. I’m an avid lover of live music – oh, I’m sure you’d love some of the artists coming out of Canberra at the moment – but I won’t be going to any gigs anytime soon because now loud or unexpected noises put me on edge, further limiting my speech and greatly heightening my anxiety levels, leading to an further increased risk of seizure. My doctors and neurologists have no idea why this is happening (except that it’s not a tumour, stroke or blood clot, which is a blessing) so there’s no treatment plan for me, except waiting to see if it comes good.

Cripes, that was a bit of a downer to start with. Sorry about that.

But it’s important that I break it all down, because I am in a pretty dark place right now. I have nothing to hold onto. The rewards I would normally give myself to try and feel better – a trip away from home, a night out with friends, seeing a band – are all out of reach. All the little goals I’m setting for myself? I’m missing them by a mile.

In the days after the first in my cluster of seizures, I bought your Born To Run album off iTunes at the suggestion of my aunt. (I prefer concrete copies, but I haven’t been able to get to a record store since this all hit the fan.)

Since then, your album has been what I cling to. I was never really one for much mischief, but the youthful abandon and longing to throw off the shackles of life and be free described in “Thunder Road” and “Born To Run”? I was working towards living that, taking advantage of my youth (I’m 26) and being myself and how the system can go to hell. I had felt trapped in my last job, and I’d just broken out of it, putting in my resignation two weeks before I fell ill. I was starting to feel the wind in my hair, and I was looking forward to seeing where the road would take me.

And then came the contrast. Certainly not as violent or criminal or broadly devastating as the actions and consequences of your characters, but just as desperate. Locked in, and clawing to get out, to no avail. That’s me now, stuck in a brain that feels like it is short-circuiting almost constantly. I am writing this letter in one of the few moments of clarity I have been blessed with.

Your album has reminded me of two things. The first is that I am very lucky. I don’t have to resort to cross-river deals or run from guns and cops, because I am a white, middle-class woman, living in my parents’ house in a country town in Australia. The second is that I was so close to beating this condition – I’d been seizure free almost two years before my relapse – that I should be able to do it again; I need to fire up the engines and get going. (Ironic, since my condition eliminates me from being able to drive.)

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve listened to Born To Run. It is the soundtrack to my days, my solace in the darkness, my motivator and my comfort. Though the story is different, the emotional ups and downs are calling me back to my own type of freedom. I listen to it every night as I go to sleep, willing it to imbibe me with its energy and the drive you used to make it happen, 40 years ago. (How was it that long ago? It still sounds fresh and vivid and alive.)

I’m yet to dive into your full back catalogue, although it does come highly recommended. I just don’t think I’m ready yet. If it’s alright with you, I’m just going to curl up with this album a little while longer, a little musical safety blanket to get me through the next few weeks, months, however long.

I honestly don’t know if I’m going to get through this, though. My speech was so precious to me, and now it’s barely there. I haven’t seen my friends in over a month, and the distance makes me ache. But even if I don’t, if I’m stuck in this shitty existence until I’m dead, I wanted to thank you for the little bit of peace you’ve brought to my soul and the little bit of fire you put in my belly. Born To Run is what my motor is running on right now, and I have needed every note of it.

Thank you. Thank you so much, for forever and a day.

Sincerely yours,

Noni Kuhner

*****

I initially didn’t want to post this here. I wanted to send it off into the world and never hear from it again. I wanted to send it to some vague record label address in the hope that it might one day get to the eyes I wrote it for. If it never did, that didn’t matter. It was the act of writing it, and of sending it that held meaning. It was an act of healing, where the process was more far more important than the result.

Two months later, I’m in a much better space than I was when I wrote this. I’m back in Canberra, starting to work again, and my speech has mostly recovered, though it does have the occasional hiccup. My brain still struggles a little when there’s too much sensory stimulation or I’m trying to think about more than one thing at a time, and I had another small seizure a few nights ago at band practice, but apart from that, I’m doing okay.

I’ve been taking some time off Born To Run over the last month or so, just to get back into the swing of listening to new things again. I’m loving Brendan Maclean’s funbang1, and some of the older gems in my collection from Inland Sea and Paul Dempsey. I made a mixed CD as a belated wedding present for a friend, and caught up on a whole bunch of podcasts. I finally got around to digging into some of Bruce Springsteen’s other works (Born In The USA is good, but inconsistent; Darkness on the Edge of Town is easily #2 on my list of favourite albums of his).

Right now, I’m listening to Born to Run again after a month or so’s break. I still love it. It still means so much to me. I still feel the need to say “Thank You” all over again.

It really is a great album.